Pathogen disgust sensitivity: Individual differences in pathogen perception or pathogen avoidance?



Humans differ in their tendency to experience disgust and avoid contact with potential sources of pathogens. Pathogen disgust sensitivity has been used to explain a wide range of social phenomena, such as prejudice, conformity, and trust. Yet, its exact role in the motivational system that regulates avoidance of pathogens, the so-called behavioral immune system, remains unclear. Here, we test how individual differences in pathogen disgust sensitivity regulates the information processing structure underlying pathogen avoidance. Participants (n = 998) rated the perceived health of individuals with or without facial blemishes and indicated how comfortable they would feel about having physical contact with them. Participants high in disgust sensitivity viewed facial blemishes as more indicative of poor health. Moreover, for participants high on disgust sensitivity, perceived health was a stronger determinant of comfort with physical contact. These findings suggest that increased pathogen disgust sensitivity leads people (a) to more readily interpret stimuli as a pathogen threat and (b) to be more strongly guided by pathogen concerns when deciding who should be approached or avoided. Thus, pathogen disgust sensitivity is a summary of investment in pathogen avoidance, rather than just an increased sensitivity to pathogen cues.
Date made available2021

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