Disgust as a Mechanism for Decision Making under Risk: Illuminating Sex Differences and Individual Risk-Taking Correlates of Disgust Propensity

Adam Maxwell Sparks, Daniel M.T. Fessler, Kai Qin Chan, Ashwini Ashokkumar, Colin Holbrook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The emotion disgust motivates costly behavioral strategies that mitigate against potentially larger costs associated with pathogens, sexual behavior, and moral transgressions. Because disgust thereby regulates exposure to harm, it is by definition a mechanism for calibrating decision making under risk. Understanding this illuminates two features of the demographic distribution of this emotion. First, this approach predicts and explains sex differences in disgust. Greater female disgust propensity is often reported and discussed in the literature, but, to date, conclusions have been based on informal comparisons across a small number of studies, while existing functionalist explanations are at best incomplete. We report the results of an extensive meta-analysis documenting this sex difference, arguing that key features of this pattern are best explained as one manifestation of a broad principle of the evolutionary biology of risk-taking: for a given potential benefit, males in an effectively polygynous mating system accept the risk of harm more willingly than do females. Second, viewing disgust as a mechanism for decision making under risk likewise predicts that individual differences in disgust propensity should correlate with individual differences in various forms of risky behavior, because situational and dispositional factors that influence valuation of opportunity and hazard are often correlated across multiple decision contexts. In two large-sample online studies, we find consistent associations between disgust and risk avoidance. We conclude that disgust and related emotions can be usefully examined through the theoretical lens of decision making under risk in light of human evolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)942-958
Number of pages17
Issue number7
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • Disgust
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Individual differences
  • Risk-taking
  • Sex differences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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