Yuck! Does disgust keep us avoiding meat?

By Jared Piazza

Cover image by Mary Winchester

Does the sight of raw meat gross you out? Does your stomach turn when you smell meat being cooked? If so, you are probably someone who rarely eats meat or hasn’t eaten meat in quite some time. You might remember a time when you didn’t mind the sight or smell of meat, or perhaps it has been so long that it’s impossible to imagine. Or perhaps the sensory aspect of meat doesn’t bother you much at all — but the thought of what meat represents (violence towards animals) is off-putting.

What keeps people from avoiding meat? Is disgust the principal driver, or might it be something deeper, linked to the moral concerns people have about the treatment of animals and the violence that meat represents?

Are you disgusted at the sight of raw meat? Why might this be? Photo credit: tommao wang 

Let’s explore these questions by taking a deep-dive into the literature on disgust and meat avoidance. Disgust is an important emotion for animal advocates to understand because it plays an important role in the context of food choices, and meat in particular. But research on disgust also has the potential to confuse, due to the plurality of claims that theorists have made about what disgust is and what it does. Here, I consider some of those claims and try to bring some clarity to the role of disgust in meat avoidance and, ultimately, animal advocacy.

What is disgust?

Most theorists would classify disgust as an emotion, which means that it is “about” something in the world (it has a reliable set of “eliciting situations”) and it has an identifiable bodily-sensorial signature, which reliably co-occurs with the perception of these situations.1 The typical bodily sensation that accompanies experiences that English-speakers tend to label “disgust” are unpleasant feelings of nausea, gagging, loss of appetite, and the urge to distance oneself from the noxious stimulus (during intense experiences of disgust one may involuntarily recoil from the stimulus).2

Disgust is highly focused on the mouth. If you want to amplify your feelings of disgust, simply apply Rozin and Fallon’s principle of “oral incorporation“: think about ingesting whatever it is that is eliciting your disgust (yuck!). Darwin posited that there is a unique facial expression associated with “disgust” that involves a gapping mouth and protruding tongue — the “sick face3, arguably, a precursor to vomiting, designed to block noxious substances from entering.

Humans are not unique in their experience of disgust. Other mammals, like mice, display oral-inhibitory behaviours similar to humans when presented with distasteful substances or unpleasant odours. The unique thing about disgust in humans is its complexity – i.e., its range of eliciting situations. Many different things seem to evoke disgust in humans from bad smells to bodily secretions, gory scenes, even aberrant sexual acts (e.g., incest).

One idea, aimed at potentially unifying these diverse observations, is that disgust, in humans, is a disease avoidance mechanism. Researchers have observed that most disgust elicitors relate to things that are pathogen vectors (i.e., transmit disease) or that resemble pathogen vectors4 (e.g., chocolate in the shape of faeces can elicit disgust).

Yuck! Disgust may have evolved to alert us to pathogen risks. Photo credit: Nancy Hughes 

There is some support for this idea. Curtis and her colleagues compiled a set of paired images, matched for visual appearance but differing in their disease relevance (e.g., a rag with a bloody smear vs. a rag with a blue-chemical smear). Over 77,000 people from different countries rated the photographs on “disgust”. Overall, the images depicting a disease risks were rated more disgusting than the disease-neutral images. The study did not measure perceptions of disease, so the researchers can only infer that this was the reason the disease-relevant images were judged more disgusting. Nonetheless, the findings align with the idea that disgust, at least in humans, may be a protective response to the presence of pathogens.

Is disgust a moral emotion?

What about the claim that disgust may have an even broader role in humans as a protector not only of the body, but of the “soul“? This is the controversial idea that humans can feel disgusted not only about offensive odours and oozing orifices, but towards “offensive” acts. A stronger version of this argument claims that disgust felt towards immoral acts, is, in some manner, influencing a person to condemn the acts.

It is certainly true that disgust can be activated in a moral context. Most moral situations are highly multi-faceted. Consider, for example, a person’s moral reaction to a violent video game like Mortal Combat. A person might feel disgusted by the copious amounts of blood and gore. They might worry that young children will be motivated to imitate the violent movements. They might be angered by a store’s willingness to sell the game to minors and they might disapprove of its distribution.

What is far from clear is whether disgust elicited in the context of morally-relevant scenarios5: (a) cause a person to condemn the act; (b) are co-extensive with condemnation of the act; or (c) are incidental to the condemnation (i.e., something else in the scene might be eliciting the disgust other than the thing that is causing the disapproval). There is an additional complexity: people can use the language of “disgust” (including the disgust face) to metaphorically communicate their moral disapproval or anger6. Thus, when researchers primarily rely on expressive language to measure the presence of disgust in a moral context there is ample opportunity to misconstrue disgust and anger.

Currently, the evidence cannot reliably discriminate between options (a) and (c) — the jury is still out regarding whether disgust has a causal role in promoting moral condemnation. While (b) might seem like a plausible contender, recent studies by myself and Justin Landy showed that the average person rejects the idea. This research found that most individuals believe that the experience of disgust is separable from moral evaluation, whereas this is not true for the emotion anger that we experience when we are offended or perceive injustice.7

In one study, participants learned about a protagonist who witnessed two men kissing in a park. They further learned that the protagonist either experienced disgust or anger when watching them. Participants who learned that the protagonist felt disgust thought it was plausible that the protagonist did not morally condemn the act–they were just uncomfortable with two men kissing. By contrast, participants who learned that the protagonist felt angry, found it much less plausible that the protagonist did not also morally condemn the act. Thus, disgust is not assumed to indicate moral disapproval in the way that anger represents disapproval. 

How we view disgust matters for advocacy

It may seem pedantic to focus on the question of disgust’s role in moral judgment, but how you answer this question has important consequences for animal advocacy. If you think that disgust causes people to condemn actions, and you wish people to condemn animal slaughter, then you will focus on trying to induce them to feel disgust about animal slaughter. However, if you recognise that people condemn animal slaughter because they are angered by its injustice, then you will put your resources elsewhere. Likewise, if you recognise that certain people avoid meat because they find aspects of it disgusting, and not because they morally disapprove of meat production, then your strategy will look different.

It may seem pedantic to focus on the question of disgust’s role in moral judgment, but how you answer this question has important consequences for animal advocacy.

Below, I argue that disgust constitutes one strategy that animal advocates may wish to capitalise on in their goal to encourage meat reduction. If you want people to feel disgust towards meat and avoid eating it, your strategy could highlight the pathogenic-content of meat, i.e., its link with disease (what I call the “disgust route”). If you want people to be outraged about meat, morally condemn it, and continue to avoid it, then your strategy might highlight the injustice of meat (what I call the “moral route”).

Both pathways can lead to meat avoidance, but the disgust route may be more effective in some contexts, e.g., early on, when the moral arguments about the harm and injustice of meat production are not compelling or when advocating on behalf of animals that are widely thought to lack moral status (e.g., fish, crustaceans, insects). By contrast, when it comes to long-term meat-avoidance maintenance, the current evidence seems to suggest that a disgust-only strategy is likely to be insufficient. People need to also cultivate moral convictions for opposing meat.

What people find disgusting about meat

Historically, human beings have had an equivocal relationship with meat. Meat is a dense source of nutrients, but it is also a common source of pathogens (“meat borne diseases“, including viral, bacterial, prionic, and parasitic diseases) and toxicants. Humans are omnivorous. Unlike “specialist” organisms, such as gorillas or koalas, who eat a narrow-range of foods or specific foods (eucalyptus leaves, in the case of koalas), humans can eat a wide variety of foods. This broad menu enabled our ancestors to exploit a wide range of food ecologies, but it also posed an “omnivore’s dilemma” because not all foods are safe. Humans developed several strategies for managing this dilemma. One potential adaptation is a sensitivity or wariness towards foods, like meat, that pose a reliable disease risk.

Most societies have rules regarding which meats are eaten and how they should be prepared. Photo credit: Benjamin Ashton

Several lines of evidence support this idea. Meat is a prized food in many societies. Nonetheless, Fessler and Navarrete observed that most cultures have taboos or customs around how meat should be prepared, when it can be eaten, and which meats can be consumed. They also found that pregnant women exhibit an elevated sensitivity towards experiencing disgust towards foods like meat during their first trimester, the organogenesis period of pregnancy when the foetus is particularly vulnerable to infection.

It also appears to be easier to condition distaste for meat products than plant products. Tyber and his colleagues presented Dutch individuals with images of meat products, plant products, and beverages. They paired the various foods with images either depicting pathogen cues (e.g., an infected toe) or no pathogens (e.g., a building). Then, participants viewed the food images a second time, without the paired images, and evaluated them. Participants who viewed the meat products paired with pathogen cues judged them less appetising than participants who viewed the meat products paired with the neutral stimuli. By contrast, appetites for plant products and beverages were unaffected by this conditioning. In other words, only appetite towards meat was negatively affected by a newly formed association with pathogens.

Humans appear to be sensitive towards meat because of its potential to transmit disease. However, there may be other reasons people come to form a distaste for meat. People can be grossed out by the appearance of meat, particularly red meat when uncooked and oozing blood, and because of meat’s ideological link to death and decay.

Hamilton explored the “symbolic power” of meat among a sample of 47 vegetarians and vegans, and 19 meat eaters. Most of the vegetarians and vegans reported strong feelings of disgust at the sight and smell of raw meat (e.g., when walking past a butcher’s shop). Many reported actively avoiding exposing themselves to these disgust elicitors (“I can’t bear the smell”; “I have to exhale or stop breathing and hurry past quickly”). Furthermore, they associated these sensory aspects of raw meat with death and decay (“it’s a dead animal”; “it just sort of looks morbid”). Some couldn’t help but draw parallels to human flesh (“what’s the difference between a dead person and a dead animal?”).

Red meat tends to disgust people more than white meat because of its typicality and vividness as animal flesh. Photo credit: Sven Brandsma 

Red meat appears to be particularly disgusting for many people. Most meat reducers tend to avoid red meat over white meat. Kubberod and her colleagues argue that this is because red meat is high in “meat typicality” and vividness – it resembles “flesh” more than does white meat. The bloodiness and tough texture of red meat are strong elicitors of disgust and meat avoidance, particularly for adolescent females. This is probably because such cues serve as reliable reminders of the animal origins of meat. Studies suggest that people experience disgust more towards meat that reminds them of an animal than meat that lacks “animal reminders” (e.g., a pig roast with the head intact vs. removed).8

Arguably, people may find animal cues, such as blood, offal, and body parts, disgusting because they remind people that they are eating the flesh of a dead animal and dead animals are potential carriers of disease. That is, animal reminders may simply trigger our evolved instinct to avoid pathogens. But this is probably too narrow of a view. At least for many meat avoiders, meat – particularly meat that resembles the animal source – is also cognitively linked to notions of violence and injustice, not simply disease.

How important is disgust in motivating meat avoidance?

One of the big questions in the literature on disgust and meat is: “Do meat avoiders avoid meat because they are disgusted by it or because they find it morally reprehensible?”

The answer of course could be: “both”. Meat could be a source of disgust for meat avoiders (e.g., because meat is a constant reminder of decay and disease), but it could also be a source of anger and outrage (e.g., at the unjust treatment of animals, its contribution to global warming, pollution, biodiversity loss, etc).

Another possibility also exists: meat avoiders may find meat disgusting because they avoid it. When you stop eating something, it becomes less familiar, and familiarity is one of the principal drivers of appetite because it informs our expectations of how food will taste.

Do meat avoiders avoid meat because they are disgusted by it or because they find it morally reprehensible?

It is likely that these three forces (disgust, anger, and familiarity) interact across a person’s life course to direct them away from animal products.9

One plausible pathway might go like this: a person starts avoiding certain meat products (e.g., red meat) for reasons having to do with disgust (they are grossed out with the sensory aspects of red meat – its texture and smell). Over time they come to realise there are other good reasons for avoiding meat (e.g., they read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation and realise that meat production is unnecessarily cruel to animals). These moral reasons inspire the person to avoid other sorts of animal products, thus, strengthening and broadening the range of products they avoid. Avoiding these products then, over time, reinforces a sense of disgust, since the person rarely eats these foods and thus finds them less appetising. Meanwhile, the ideological connection between meat and cruelty towards animals is also strengthened, fuelling the person’s anger about this injustice.

This is of course one hypothetical case (loosely based on my own experiences). Other permutations are possible, and other factors are likely important in meat avoidance (e.g., creating a sense of belonging with other meat avoiders). Nonetheless, this sketch does resemble some first-hand accounts of practicing vegetarians and vegans.

Does disgust keep people avoiding meat?

Given that many vegetarians and vegans at some point return to eating meat, the million-dollar question for many animal advocates is: “How do we keep people avoiding meat?”

The million-dollar question for many animal advocates is: “How do we keep people avoiding meat?”

For our purposes, we might rephrase the question: “Which emotion matters more for keeping people away from meat–disgust or moral anger?”

My reading of the current evidence points to the moral route, rather than disgust. There are at least two sources of evidence for this: (1) cross-sectional studies that have compared meat reduction among vegetarians with moral vs. amoral (e.g., personal health) motivations; and (2) longitudinal studies that have tracked emotions and eating over time. Most of the evidence in support of the moral route comes from (1), whereas the few studies that have looked at (2) offers inconclusive evidence for disgust.

One of the first studies of the emotional underpinnings of meat avoidance was conducted by Rozin and colleagues. In a cross-sectional design, they found that vegetarians who avoided meat for moral reasons (e.g., “violates an animal’s rights”), compared to those who avoided meat exclusively for health reasons, tended to (a) experience more disgust towards meat; (b) avoided a wider range of animal products; and (c) had accumulated more reasons for rejecting meat (including health reasons). This is certainly some evidence in favour of the moral route, given the more extensive commitments of moral vegetarians. However, it is inconclusive with regards to disgust. As we discussed earlier, disgust may be higher in moral vegetarians because they avoid more animal products (e.g., for moral reasons), and not because disgust is causing them to avoid more animal products.

Internalising moral reasons for rejecting meat may deepen commitments. Photo credit: Chuko Cribb

Another cross-sectional study by Hoffman et al. compared 234 ethical and 58 health vegetarians, using “length of time respondents had been vegetarian” as their measure of commitment. Ethical vegetarians had stronger convictions about their vegetarian identity and had been vegetarian longer than health-oriented vegetarians (M = 9.97 vs. 5.90 years). Again, these findings are limited by their cross-sectional nature, but they are suggestive that having moral reasons for avoiding meat (e.g., “Animal rights”; “The environment”) may help foster long-standing commitments. (This study is unable to speak to the role of disgust as a commitment device, since disgust was not measured.)

Studies by Feinberg and colleagues tracked emotions and meat attitudes over time. They followed university students through a semester, across three timepoints. They measured emotions experienced when thinking about meat, including guilt, shame, disgust, anger, outrage, and sadness. The emotions tended to form a single index, so the study could not discriminate between different emotions. Nonetheless, the extent to which students experienced increased meat-directed negative emotion over time tended to predict the strength of their moral convictions about the wrongness of eating meat–a process they labelled moralisation (a term coined by Paul Rozin). In follow-up studies, they showed that “moralisers” tended to reduce the amount of meat they consumed. Though these studies highlight how emotions are involved in the process of meat avoidance, they are not able to isolate the role of disgust specifically. Undoubtedly, these findings underscore the importance of cultivating moral convictions for meat avoidance.

Becker and Lawrence studied changes in meat-oriented disgust and meat avoidance across two timepoints. They followed a group of 402 omnivores, 203 flexitarians, and 106 vegetarians over a 6-month period. Among the subset of omnivores and flexitarians that were available for follow-up (n = 102), the authors observed a significant correlation between an explicit measure of meat disgust change (i.e., increased disgust between two timepoints) and reduced meat intake for the flexitarians (there was a similar, non-significant trend for omnivores). This could be evidence for disgust causing flexitarians to reduce their meat intake. However, the inverse causal direction is also plausible: avoidance of meat could be promoting an increase in disgust. Thus, until more research is conducted, this line of evidence remains agnostic towards the causal role of disgust in long-term meat avoidance.

Conclusion: How disgust can encourage meat avoidance

So far, I have argued that the moral route may be particularly important for keeping people avoiding meat. This is not to say that there is no value in utilising the power of disgust for animal advocacy. Disgust may be a useful tool for disrupting people’s appetite for meat in the short-term. How might this work?

Disgust may be a useful tool for disrupting people’s appetite for meat in the short-term.

Within a targeted intervention, two key questions are: (1) “what is your objective?“, and (2) “who is your audience?” If your objective is to get a current meat eater to avoid a certain meat product, then I would argue that there is great value in exploring the disgust route. If, instead, your objective is to help a current meat avoider continue along the path of meat avoidance, then I would make sure they are aware of the moral reasons for avoiding meat and that they have internalised these moral convictions.

It is important to consider your audience when designing an intervention because active meat eaters are unlikely to be sympathetic to moral arguments for avoiding meat. This could be because they don’t see much value in the life of a fish, cow, or chicken; they don’t appreciate the extent of the harm that factory farming causes the planet; or they want to keep eating meat. For individuals in this early, pre-contemplation stage of change, the disgust route may be a more effective option.

Disgust may be a potential kick-starter intervention for omnivores because, as we have seen, all humans have evolved sensitivities for detecting and responding to pathogens. A great example of this comes from the Humane League’s work on factory farmed fish. Fish farming is morally heinous because of the countless number of fish lives that are harmed by it. But this argument may not have fins for most fish eaters. Fish farming is also disgusting because of the high risk of zoonotic disease transmission and the abundant use of chemicals. In focus-group interviews with fish consumers, the Humane League observed that disgust-oriented descriptions of fish farming (e.g., highlighting the risk of disease) was more upsetting to fish consumers than emphasising the ethical issues (e.g., the inhumane conditions suffered by fish).

This is a great example of using disgust within a targeted intervention. If there are good reasons to believe that your audience will not respond to moral arguments or be angered by meat production, disgust may be a useful alternative because even the most deeply committed meat lover will struggle with the thought of ingesting rotten meat. Evolution has designed us to be wary of harmful microbes, and meat has no shortage of risks to human health and hygiene.


1 Some would argue that disgust is better classified as a primitive, reflexive sensory experience, like hunger or thirst, rather than a complex emotion.

2 Disgust may be associated with increased activation of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), including increased heart rate and digastricus (“swallow”) muscle activity, though evidence for this is mixed.

3 The “sick face” may not be unique to the experience of “disgust”, as there is substantial variability in the presentation, use, and identification of emotion expressions. For example, the sick face might be interpreted as “sadness” if presented in a context where you learned that a person just received news of their parent dying.

4 This is one of Rozin and Nemeroff’s “laws of sympathetic magic” – the “similarity principle“.

5 Some researchers call scenarios that involve disgusting content “purity violations“.

6 Nabi showed that terms like “grossed out” or “nauseous” better communicate the oral-inhibitory nature of disgust and are less likely to be confused with “anger”.

7 Some theorists distinguish anger at harms experienced personally (e.g., someone insulting you) from “moral outrage” which is anger experienced at injustice. The difference primarily concerns the target of the offence: self (personal anger) vs. someone you identify with (moral anger or outrage).

8 Other studies suggest that “animal reminders” may only be problematic for appetites when meat is unfamiliar and thus consumers are uncertain about its tastiness.

9 Though beyond the scope of this article, guilt is another important emotion for meat avoidance. I would connect guilt to the “moral route”. It is the emotion one experiences when you notice you have violated your internalised standards (e.g., to avoid meat, help animals, etc.). It often motivates us to engage in reparations. Anticipatory guilt can keep us from violating those standards.

Author: Jared Piazza

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