How to Cultivate Disgust

William Miller, a scholar of disgust, proposes two forms of this emotion—both of which shed light on our internal conflict. Freudian disgust combines with shame to serve “as a barrier to satisfying unconscious desires, barely admitted fascinations, or furtive curiosities.” Hence, we emotionally abhor what we secretly desire. And the disgust of surfeit protects us from overindulgence. Too much food, drink, sex, or other carnalities evokes nausea, so that which was attractive becomes repulsive. Perhaps Miller’s model explains, at least partially, the push and pull of pornography—as well as of maggot-filled corpses, carpets of cockroaches, and legions of locusts.

The Domains of Disgust: Insects Rule

Psychologists, philosophers, and other scholars have classified disgust in various ways. To understand why insects are so damn good at being disgusting, a biologically based taxonomy is most appropriate. Paul Rozin, the leading experimental psychologist in disgust who laid the foundations for this field in the 1980s, identifies seven “species.”

Animalism: Insects as Beastly Vectors

Rozin contends that disgust can be a manifestation of a desire to avoid our bestial origin and nature. 28 And according to Aurel Kolnai, a Hungarian philosopher whose thoughts on disgust in 1929 anticipated much of today’s work, insects evoke a “strange coldness, the restless, nervous, squirming, twitching vitality [that gives] the impression of life caught up in a senseless, formless surging.”

Graham Davey, a psychologist, formulates animalism in terms of infection. This connection between animals and disease arose in three ways. First, disgusting animals may possess the qualities of contaminating substances such as feces and mucus (e.g., worms and slugs are slimy and turd-like). Next, humans have correctly associated certain animals with illness (e.g., rats and cockroaches in our homes) and contamination (e.g., beetles in our grain and maggots in our meat). And finally, we have also falsely associated animals with sickness, as superstitions transformed some creatures into objects of disgust. For example, during the Middle Ages spiders were thought to absorb poisons from the environment and infect foods by contact (the difference between a chemical poison and a biological pathogen was not understood at the time). Spiders were also considered harbingers of the plagues that devastated Europe, with people believing that spiders (rather than fleas) spread disease through their bites. Indeed, some historians trace the emergence of our anxieties about spiders to the mistaken beliefs of medieval Europeans. This connection of animality to disease brings us to the second species of disgust.

Death: Insect Ambulance Chasers

The disgust evoked by teeming masses of insects arises from two morbid associations. First, rotting tissues fuel an outpouring of insect life, as if putrescence is reanimated in the form of flies, beetles, and their kin. Indeed, until Francesco Redi’s experiments in the 1600s, rotting meat was thought to generate flies spontaneously (and garbage was taken to be the source of rats). We have given up these beliefs, but it is still amazing to see blow flies arrive within minutes of death, as if these two-winged vultures are always lurking in the crevices of the world.

The other connection to death develops ironically from the profligacy of insects. In “senseless, formless surging” numbers, grasshoppers within a ravine represent the utter devaluation of life. Forced to confront our own triviality, we are appalled by the meaningless life and thoughtless death within the swarm. And so Miller contends that: “What disgusts, startlingly, is the capacity for life … Images of decay imperceptibly slide into images of fertility.” From here, it is a small step to the next species of disgust.

Sex: Insects as Fornicators and Exhibitionists

An abundance of life implies a corresponding profusion of copulation. The orgiastic reproduction of insects has long off ended human sensibilities: “Every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is an abomination” (Leviticus 11:41). Kolnai described the disgust we feel toward vermin in terms of the “formless effervescence of life, of interminable directionless sprouting and breeding.” He maintained that repugnance is elicited “by the sight of swelling breasts, by swarming broods of some species of animal, fish spawn, perhaps even by rank, overgrown vegetation.” Otto Weininger, another psychologist-philosopher in the early twentieth century, starkly claimed: “All fecundity is simply disgusting.”

The March fly, Plecia nearctica, is commonly seen in enormous numbers along the Gulf Coast in spring and fall. The common name of love bug refers to the fact that these insects are often seen in copula, even while flying, thereby creating the impression of an insectan orgy. (Wikimedia Commons)

In an affront to puritanical sensibilities, dragonflies, grasshoppers, and butterflies are seen in copula throughout the summer. In spring and fall across the southern United States, March flies (aka love bugs, honeymoon flies, and double-headed bugs) unashamedly mate on the wing. Appropriately enough, these six-legged exhibitionists spend their larval lives in the soil, consuming decaying vegetation. Indeed, we conceptually equate sexual license with dirtiness (e.g., pornography is “filth”), and this leads us to the next form of disgust.

Hygiene: Insects as the Original Dumpster Divers

If insects live in, consume, and emerge from sewage and garbage, it is easy to understand our revulsion. Hugh Raffles’s lyric essay includes “the nightmare of long, probing antennae from the overflow hole in the bathroom sink or, worse, the rim of the toilet.” The nasty cockroach emerging from the plumbing is arguably more disgusting, but rather less common, than a germy fly crawling on our potato salad.

Presented by

Jeffrey Lockwood is a professor of natural sciences and humanities at the University of Wyoming. He is the author of Six-Legged Soldiers.

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