Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


That’s Disgusting: Researcher Studies Gag Reflex

• March 12, 2012 • 4:00 AM

In a revolting development, research psychologist Rachel Herz has cornered the market on discussing what disgusts us.

Not many people have had the fortunate pleasure of judging the “Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneakers Contest” held yearly in Montpelier, Vermont. But Rachel Herz, who served as the event’s celebrity judge in March 2008, didn’t just come away with a gag-worthy tale to shock her friends and colleagues. As a fragrance consultant and research psychologist investigating the sense of smell since 1990, Herz was inspired to immerse herself into the study of the emotion of disgust, culminating in her book That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, published by Norton & Company in January. As she writes in the preface: “I have learned that the emotion of disgust is universal, but it is not innate. I have learned that disgust is many things to many people at different times and in different places; and that it is shaped by our situation, culture and personal history.” Miller-McCune spoke with Herz for her thoughts on one area with great potential to elicit disgust: food.

Miller-McCune: You wrote that the mind has a very powerful influence on our perception and experience of disgust.

Rachel Herz: The emotion of disgust is highly learned. You need an intact, healthy brain in order to turn the mechanism on. But after that, it’s really a function of our experience, culture, and learning. And it’s also highly malleable as a function of the situation we’re in and, specifically, the meaning we ascribe to whatever it is we think we’re perceiving. If you were sitting in a fancy French restaurant and started smelling something and noticed a waiter with a tray, you’d go, “Oh, it must be the cheese course; I’m excited, I’d like to have some taleggio.’” But if you encountered that exact same smell while walking down an alley behind a dive bar, your thoughts would construe the aroma as something totally different. And you’d probably feel totally disgusted.

M-M: So what happens to us physiologically when we eat something disgusting?

RH: The emotion response of disgust triggers a number of physiological responses, like a drop in blood pressure and an increase in sweating. In extreme cases, you can faint or even vomit. Serotonin gets suffused into the stomach, which is actually an adaptive measure to help initiate vomiting. From a primitive perspective, it’s about protecting us from being contaminated from something on the outside getting into our bodies.

M-M: You write that one of the first and most interesting things you learned about disgust was its impact on facial expressions.

RH: Since one of the core mechanisms of disgust is this idea of shielding the body from the outside, if you look at someone’s face who’s disgusted, you see them squinting their eyes. They’re actually taking in less light to avoiding seeing the disgusting object. In addition, the nose scrunches up and nestles around the cheeks, which closes air off to the nostrils so you can’t catch the smell as well. And our mouths purse as a means to keep things out, or if something got in, it’s a way to get it out. It’s all about protecting the holes on our face, as it were, from contamination.

M-M: Disgust originated in human evolution to protect us from eating poisonous food.

RH: That’s the most simplistic aspect. For example, if you put a drop of quinine on a newborn’s tongue, she’ll make the same grimace as you’d make if I asked you to hold your neighbor’s dirty dentures. What’s interesting is that the response of distaste in reaction to bitter stuff is innate and stereotyped because of the fact that bitter things tend to be poison. Not all bitter things are poison, but it’s a good rule of thumb that if it’s bitter, spit it out. Built onto that very primitive reaction, which animals also have, we find this much higher order level of emotional disgust. So this initial system that protects the body from ingesting poison evolved to protect us from being contaminated by disease.

M-M: So how do you account for the wide variety of disgust levels from person to person and from one age group to another?

RH: One reason is personality. People vary in the degree they’re sensitive to disgust overall. There are also specific things that are more repulsive to one person over another. We each have our own personal levels based on our genetics, temperament, and experience. For example, if I grew up in a household where my parents were very adventurous eaters and I had to take part, then I’d have a completely different attitude toward experimenting with food than if my parents served meatloaf for dinner and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.

M-M: Culture is another big area where we see a great variation in what’s considered disgusting.

RH: Cheese is really interesting, because I think Westerners think of it as either a comfort food or a delicacy. But Asians liken it to cow excrement. Of course, there are comparable things in Asia that repulse Westerners that are considered absolutely delicious — foods like natto, fermented soybeans or 100-year-old fermented eggs. The point is that there’s nothing dangerous at all. In fact, they’re all healthy foods to eat. It’s just how we think of them that makes these foods abhorrent or appealing depending on the culture. Something I think that requires a leap of faith to view as delicious is the drink chicha. This is liquor made out of a collective group’s saliva and mashed up cornmeal that’s allowed to ferment for a month in the ground and become an alcoholic type brew.

M-M: Are there any edible things considered universally disgusting?

RH: I don’t know of any. There’d be no sense in that. The emotion of disgust is basically a luxury of abundance. We have the ability to choose between all kinds of different things to consume. If we were hanging on a thread of survival, we would eat whatever rotten, disgusting, wormy thing was wandering by.

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Arnie Cooper
Arnie Cooper, a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif., covers food, travel and popular culture, as well as architecture and the sustainability movement. He is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure and Arts page; his writing has also appeared in Outside, Esquire, Orion and Dwell. He's working on a memoir about his childhood experiences in New York City.

More From Arnie Cooper

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.