Why Are Injuries Disgusting? Comparing Pathogen Avoidance and Empathy Accounts

Tom R. Kupfer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


According to pathogen-avoidance perspectives on disgust, injuries, gore, mutilation, or body-envelope violations elicit disgust because they have infectious potential. Here, an alternative explanation is proposed: People empathically simulate an observed injury, leading to unpleasant vicarious feelings, and for lack of a more accurate word, they describe the feelings as disgust. In Study 1, factor analysis of participants' disgust ratings showed that injury items emerged as a separate factor from pathogen items. A behavioral experiment in Study 2 demonstrated that subjects were less willing to touch dressings that had ostensibly been in contact with infections compared with dressings that had contacted equally disgusting injuries, suggesting that the disgust reported toward injuries is not based on an appraisal of contamination threat. Analysis of participants' subjective feeling descriptions in Study 3 revealed that injury stimuli were predominantly associated with feelings of empathy and vicarious pain, rather than the prototypical disgust feelings associated with infection stimuli. Study 4 showed that the level of disgust reported toward injuries was more strongly predicted by perceived pain and horror than by perceived infectiousness, whereas disgust toward infections was equally well predicted by perceived infectiousness and perceived pain and horror. Together, these findings support the hypothesis that disgust reported toward injuries describes an unpleasant vicarious experience based on empathy, which is not the same emotion as the prototypical disgust elicited by pathogen cues.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)959-970
Number of pages12
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Disgust
  • Emotion
  • Empathy
  • Injuries
  • Simulation


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