Intellect Spring 2017 | Psychology

Women say "Ick!", Men say "Meh."

Gender Roles and Disgust

by Patricia Allen '13 (M.A.)

Alex Skolnick, Ph.D., is on a mission to understand disgust, one of the six basic human emotions. (To wit: Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise are all identifiable across the globe by their six unique facial expressions, according to psychologist Paul Ekman).

An experimental psychologist who started his career as a primatologist, Skolnick gravitated to studying positive human emotion and health but became interested in disgust and the underpinnings of revulsion when he met a third-year medical student who told him she was grossed-out by blood.

“I thought, ‘There’s no medical field that doesn’t involve blood, so why would you choose to be a doctor?’” he relates.

Intrigued, he ran a study while he was on the College of New Jersey faculty with pre-med students, biology majors who were not pre-med, and business majors, which looked at the students’ disgust responses to blood. Perhaps not surprisingly, the business majors had the highest response, but he was surprised to learn that the pre-med students scored in the middle, with bio majors rating the lowest.

Skolnick concluded that pre-med students might start college feeling disgusted by blood, “but they must think that exposure to it in medical school will change them." The small study launched his career- defining interest in disgust, a relatively new field: Darwin published the first scientific book on emotions in 1872, but the first review paper to focus on disgust was published in 1987.

Now an SJU assistant professor of psychology, Skolnick has published several articles on disgust, including one in The Journal of General Psychology (2013) that established him in the field: “Gender Differences When Touching Something Gross: Unpleasant? No. Disgusting? Yes!”

The study tested the hypothesis that women would report greater disgust but not greater unpleasantness than men to stimuli hidden from sight in a box but touchable through a side opening. Most studies had elicited disgust by using cringe-worthy visual images — Skolnick’s research was the first to show differences in how women and men respond to touching something they perceive to be disgusting.

The stimuli were common objects including properties that were potentially disgusting and unpleasant: boiled rigatoni noodles (slippery, oily), honey (gooey, sticky), and earthworms (squishy, wriggling), which can evoke sensory experiences that tie to putrefaction and decay; non-disgusting and unpleasant: a small disc with screws glued to it (sharp); and neutral: three small, raw wooden blocks and room temperature water.

The subjects self-reported their responses, and while there was no difference in the way the two genders encountered the “unpleasant” object, women consistently rated their disgust higher than men for the two “most disgusting” stimuli, earthworms and honey.

This led Skolnick to ask: “Why should touching sticky and wormy things produce different levels of disgust in women and men?” Since then, gender difference in disgust response has shaped most of his work.

Many scientists have related this gendered variance to biology and evolution: Women are hardwired to respond with a higher rate of disgust than men to keep their children safe from disease and contagion, but there is also a correlation to a social overlay, namely gender-based stereotypes, says Skolnick. “Differences in the way women and men experience emotions are multifactorial,” he adds.

"Why should touching sticky and wormy things produce different levels of disgust in women and men?”
Alex Skolnick, Ph.D.

“Gender Role Expectations of Disgust: Men Are Low and Women Are High,” his study published in Sex Roles (2013) demonstrated that women might report themselves as responding strongly to something gross, like screeching, “Ick!” at the sight of a cockroach moving across the floor, and men might remain unperturbed when the insect scurries past (even if they find it revolting), because those behaviors are, for the most part, ingrained and expected.

“This seems to be true, at least in the West,” he says, where much of the disgust research has been staged. But Skolnick points to a third study he conducted with Vivian Dzokoto, Ph.D., of Virginia Commonwealth University, “Disgust and Contamination: A Cross-National Comparison of Ghana and the United States,” published in Frontiers in Psychology (2013) that tested whether female and male subjects living in an area with a historically high prevalence of infectious disease would score differently than their western counterparts.

“We found that Ghanaian women scored high, but the men were right up there with them,” says Skolnick. “West Africa is one of three places on the Earth to experience the most contagious diseases. It’s functional to their culture for both genders to be high in disgust.”

Skolnick says the gender parity found in the Ghanaian study has led him to another question. Instead of saying that women react high on the disgust scale, “shouldn’t we in the West be trying to understand why men score low?” he says, and floats another theory.

“I think it’s about men wanting to be emotionally tough,” Skolnick says. “Most men show their toughness by being fearless, by not showing pain and by not showing disgust to things that merit the term. That’s another study I’m interested in — what are the objects or experiences that make it OK for men to show disgust?”

In all of its “icky glory,” he says, disgust offers many avenues to understand human emotion and behavior.