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Why disgust is important from a spiritual perspective


By Joe Perez

One of the most important insights of the Integral Framework is that it helps us to integrate psychological research regarding the basis for our worldviews with our spirituality. For instance, when we learn that many (but not all) liberals and many (but not all) conservatives are more likely to hold a common psychological type or structure-stage which per se is neither good nor bad, and for which they are not morally accountable, then we become less judgmental of them.

Thereupon we learn to dis-identify with exclusively liberal or conservative impulses as we locate within our own psyche the basis upon which liberals and conservatives usually hold out their warring worldviews as the only one worth belief. This change in political beliefs is associated with the arrival of a more expansive identification of the self and the world it inhabits. The self holds more of a both/and perspective rather than either/or.

Now it turns out researchers are constantly giving us greater understanding of how this all happens. Writing on Towleroad, Chris Mooney reviews the evidence to substantiate the fact that there appears to be no rational basis for the belief that children are harmed by same-sex marriage and unions. But Mooney’s main point is not political, but psychological. He argues that there is a psychological basis for differences in belief among liberals and conservatives regarding gay marriage, and it has to do with feelings of disgust:

There are a small number of Christian right researchers and intellectuals who have tried to make a scientific case against same-sex marriages and unions, by citing alleged harms to children. This stuff isn’t mainstream or scientifically accepted — witness the APA’s statements on the matter. But from the perspective of the Christian right, that doesn’t really matter. When people are looking for evidence to support their deeply held views, the science suggests that people engage in “motivated reasoning.” Their deep emotional convictions guide the retrieval of self-supporting information that they then use to argue with, to prop themselves up. It isn’t about truth, it’s about feeling that you’re right — righteous, even.

And where, in turn, do these emotions come from? Well, there’s the crux. A growing body of research shows that liberals and conservatives, on average, have different moral intuitions, impulses that bias us in different directions before we’re even consciously thinking about situations or issues. Indeed, this research suggests that liberals and conservatives even have different bodily responses to stimuli, of a sort that they cannot control. And one of the strongest areas of difference involves one’s sensitivity to the feeling of disgust.

recent study, for instance, found that “individuals with marked involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images.” In other words, there’s now data to back up what we’ve always kind of known: The average conservative, much more than the average liberal, is having visceral feelings of disgust towards same-sex marriage. And then, when these conservatives try to consciously reason about the matter, they seize on any information to support or justify their deep-seated and uncontrolled response — which pushes them in the direction of believing and embracing information that appears to justify and ratify the emotional impulse.

The key takeaway, for my purposes today, is that when we look at our beliefs and those of our neighbors about important subjects of concern to us all, we are not looking at beliefs formed strictly out of either emotional or rational bases. Beliefs can also be almost instinctual, rooted in primordial feelings planted deep in the reptilian brain. In a sense, debates about gay marriage can turn into a show of force between a mature human perspective and a reptile perspective rationalized with human defense mechanisms.

Perhaps disgust is not something quickly changed, but it is a conditioned reaction that can be changed given the right amount of time, inclinations, and technique. But anyone concerned with making positive changes in the world needs to know this information and develop strategies smart enough to account for more of reality. And that is one way to characterize the Integral perspective on which World Spirituality is grounded: it is based in reality, and a commitment to continually embrace and include as much of it as possible… and perhaps, by extension, be disgusted by as little of it as possible.

About Joe Perez

Joe Perez is Executive Editor of Spirit's Next Move, Director of Communications and Scholar-in-Residence at the Center for World Spirituality. He has eight years of blogging experience and has seen two of his blogs published as books including Soulfully Gay, a pioneering Integral Spirituality memoir. He is an Honors graduate of Harvard University, has studied at The Divinity School at The University of Chicago, and holds a certificate in Integral Leadership from Pacific Integral. He also blogs at Gay Spirituality.


  1. Scott Arbeit says:

    Joe –

    Disgust is a really interesting topic for me… I’ve always wondered about it, and whether or not it indicates that something is deeply at odds, in a fundamental way, with the bodymind that’s feeling the disgust. For me, it shows up in food. I don’t eat seafood, and I especially do not eat vinegar. I find them both disgusting. As in, I don’t want to be near them. I don’t want to touch them. The smell of them is repulsive. And I certainly don’t want them in my mouth. A teaspoon of vinegar would make me throw up, instantly.

    So, does that mean that there was some sort of UL or LL quadrant incident that caused me to “learn” disgust for vinegar? That would mean that there’s a psychological or developmental path to changing it. Or does it mean that there’s a valid, if opaque, UR quadrant reason that vinegar causes such an extreme reaction for me? Perhaps the surface gross-world reaction reflects a subtle-level energetic incompatibility between my energetic being and the energy of vinegar? I have no idea.

    I live with a not-too-tightly-held idea that there is something useful for me about disgust. I’m just not sure that reducing my disgust to these foods is a spiritually or Integrally valid goal. And then I wonder, is there a fundamental difference between the disgust that I feel about vinegar, and the disgust someone on the Religious Right might feel about homosexuality? Are we using the word “disgust” to talk about two different things in that case? No answers, just questions.


    By the way, we have a word for “It isn’t about truth, it’s about feeling that you’re right — righteous, even.” It’s called “truthiness”. 🙂

  2. Joe Perez says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great points, and I agree there are plenty of unanswered questions. My response would be to say that we may need a concept of Disgust as opposed to disgust, just as in the Integral Framework there is Fear (Phobos or Thanatos) and fears. I think disgust is a fear-driven response, but one which could be useful and beneficial in a particular situation. It could help keep us away from spoiled food, for instance. Just as fears can be useful, we can still recognize that at all levels — all the way down as they say: nondual, causal, subtle, gross — it is a movement away from Eros. In any case, that’s my story and I’ll stick to it until a better one comes along.

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