Do children feel moral disgust?

by Dr Ana Aznar, Dr Harriet R. Tenenbaum and Dr Sophie Russell

25 May 2021

Angry looking child stares at table

What is disgust?

Disgust is a universal human emotion. One type of disgust is called physical disgust. Physical disgust protects us from ingesting or touching things that could be dangerous for us, such as raw meat, insects, faeces or vomit. Children experience physical disgust from a very early age. However, they do not achieve an understanding of the concept of physical disgust until they are around four years old. Disgust is understood later than other emotions, such as happiness or sadness, which are understood around three years old.

Some researchers maintain that there is another type of disgust, called moral disgust, that protects us from engaging in activities that can be perceived as morally wrong.

Examples of things that would provoke moral disgust are incest, stealing from an elderly person or infidelity. Some evidence suggests that children understand the concept of moral disgust even later than physical disgust, at around seven years old.

Does moral disgust even exist?

However, not all academics think that moral disgust really exists. Some say that when we refer to disgust in relation to moral issues, we are using disgust as a metaphor, and that in reality what we are feeling is anger. So, for example, when we say that someone has cheated on their partner of 20 years and we say, “that is disgusting”, we are using “disgust” as a metaphor. What we really mean is that it makes us very angry, but we are not actually experiencing the emotion of disgust.

Is moral disgust socially learnt?

If moral disgust appears quite late in development, it makes sense to think that there is a social component to it. Children learn about emotions in many different ways, by observing and imitating people around them and through conversations with others. Of special relevance are conversations about emotions between parents and children. Indeed, children whose parents talk about emotion often have a better emotional understanding than children whose parents do not discuss emotions often.

However, there are no studies that have examined how parents and children talk about disgust. This is what we set up to examine in our study. How do parents and children talk about moral and physical disgust? Does this influence how children understand the emotion of disgust? Do parents and children talk about both physical and moral disgust?

How do parents and children talk about disgust?

To examine this, we asked 68 English-speaking mothers and their four-, six- or eight-year-old children to discuss some stories about moral and physical disgust. Our preliminary findings show that mothers and children do talk about disgust, but mainly about physical disgust and not so much about moral disgust. So, for example, when we asked them to mention things that would make them disgusted they mentioned physical items such as bogies or vomit, but they did not mention moral issues frequently.

When we asked mothers and children to discuss moral issues, such as whether it is OK to play with another child who has stolen someone else’s snack, they linked this type of moral transgression with the emotion of anger and not disgust.

Taken together, our findings suggest that mothers and children tend to think about disgust as only relating to physical issues and that they link moral issues with anger. Does this mean that moral disgust does not exist? Some researchers suggest moral disgust exists in adults. Our findings suggest that moral disgust is either understood at a later age and is only used metaphorically, if at all, in children as old as eight years.

Findings of our study contribute to our understanding of disgust. This is important because disgust protects us from infectious diseases, it is central to clinical disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and plays a role in prejudice and social exclusion.

Dr Ana Aznar is a developmental psychologist with a general interest in children's socioemotional development, and a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Winchester. In 2017, Dr Aznar was awarded a BA/Leverhulme Small Research Grant, for her project "Is moral disgust socially learnt?". Dr Harriet Tenenbaum is a Reader in Developmental Psychology at the University of Surrey, and Dr Sophie Russell also works at the University of Surrey, as a Lecturer in Social Psychology.


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