Specificity of Disgust in the Prediction of Behavioral Avoidance of Possible Contaminants

  • Rebecca L. Campbell
  • Teah-Marie Bynion
  • Jennifer Forte
  • Matthew T. Feldner
  • Thomas G. AdamsJr.Email author
Original Article


Individual differences related to disgust have been implicated in a host of psychiatric disorders, including obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD). Theory suggests that individual differences in disgust propensity and, perhaps, sensitivity, make individuals more prone to experience disgust when confronted with potential contaminants, which then motivates avoidance of possible contaminants or safety behaviors aimed at removing contaminants when avoidance is not possible. However, no study has concurrently examined the relations of disgust propensity and state disgust with avoidance of contaminant-based stimuli. The present study recruited a sample of 90 undergraduate participants and utilized a multimodal assessment (including self-reported disgust and a behavioral approach task using possible contaminants) to examine the direct and indirect effects of disgust propensity, disgust sensitivity, trait anxiety, state disgust, and state anxiety on avoidance of the stimuli. Results suggested disgust propensity was the only individual difference variable to significantly correlate with avoidance. Although state disgust and state anxiety were significantly correlated with disgust propensity and avoidance, only state disgust significantly mediated the effects of disgust propensity on avoidance. These findings suggest that disgust propensity and state disgust may lead to avoidance of possible contaminants, thereby perpetuating contamination fears and aversions. As such, these results have implications for the etiology of contamination-based OCD. Additional research with clinical samples and more objective measures of state emotional experiences are needed.


Disgust Anxiety Contamination Avoidance Obsessive–compulsive disorder 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Rebecca L. Campbell, Teah-Marie Bynion, Jennifer Forte, Matthew T. Feldner and Thomas G. Adams Jr. declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individuals participating in the study.

Animal Rights

This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.


  1. Abramowitz, J. S., Fabricant, L. E., Taylor, S., Deacon, B. J., McKay, D., & Storch, E. A. (2014). The relevance of analogue studies for understanding obsessions and compulsions. Clinical Psychology Review,34(3), 206–217. Scholar
  2. Adams, T. G., Cisler, J. M., Brady, R. E., Lohr, J. M., & Olatunji, B. O. (2013). Preliminary psychometric evidence for distinct affective and cognitive mechanisms mediating contamination aversion. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment. Scholar
  3. Antony, M. M., Bieling, P. J., Cox, B. J., Enns, M. W., & Swinson, R. P. (1998). Psychometric properties of the 42-item and 21-item versions of the Depression Anxiety Stress Scales in clinical groups and a community sample. Psychological Assessment,10(2), 176–181. Scholar
  4. Athey, A. J., Elias, J. A., Crosby, J. M., Jenike, M. A., Pope, H. G., Hudson, J. I., et al. (2015). Reduced disgust propensity is associated with improvement in contamination/washing symptoms in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders,4, 20–24. Scholar
  5. Bhikram, T., Abi-Jaoude, E., & Sandor, P. (2017). OCD: Obsessive-compulsive… disgust? The role of disgust in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience,42(5), 300–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Borkovec, T. D., & Rachman, S. (1979). The utility of analogue research. Behaviour Research and Therapy,17(3), 253–261. Scholar
  7. Cohen, J. (1992). A power primer. Psychological Bulletin,112(1), 155–159. Scholar
  8. Çokluk, O., & Kayri, M. (2011). The effects of methods of imputation for missing values on the validity and reliability of scales. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice,11, 303–309. Scholar
  9. Davey, G. C. L. (1994). Self-reported fears to common indigenous animals in an adult UK population: The role of disgust sensitivity. British Journal of Psychology,85, 541–554.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Deacon, B., & Maack, D. J. (2008). The effects of safety behaviors on the fear of contamination: An experimental investigation. Behaviour Research and Therapy,46(4), 537–547. Scholar
  11. Deacon, B., & Olatunji, B. O. (2007). Specificity of disgust sensitivity in the prediction of behavioral avoidance in contamination fear. Behaviour Research and Therapy,45(9), 2110–2120. Scholar
  12. Gangemi, A., Mancini, F., & Van Den Hout, M. (2012). Behavior as information: “If i avoid, then there must be a danger”. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry,43(4), 1032–1038. Scholar
  13. Hayes, A. F. (2012). PROCESS: A versatile computational tool for observed variable mediation, moderation, and conditional process modeling. White Paper. 978-1-60918-230-4.Google Scholar
  14. Hofmann, S. G., & Hay, A. C. (2018). Rethinking avoidance: Toward a balanced approach to avoidance in treating anxiety disorders. Journal of Anxiety Disorders,55, 14–21. Scholar
  15. IBM. (2016). IBM SPSS statistics for windows. Armonk, NY: IBM Corp.Google Scholar
  16. Knowles, K. A., Jessup, S. C., & Olatunji, B. O. (2018). Disgust in anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders: Recent findings and future directions. Current Psychiatry Reports,20(9), 68. Scholar
  17. Kraemer, H. C., Stice, E., Kazdin, A., Offord, D., & Kupfer, D. (2001). How do risk factors work together? Mediators, moderators, and independent, overlapping, and proxy risk factors. American Journal of Psychiatry,158, 456–848.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. McKay, D. (2017). Presidential address: Embracing the repulsive: The case for disgust as a functionally central emotional state in the theory, practice, and dissemination of cognitive-behavior therapy. Behavior Therapy,48(6), 731–738.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Mook, D. G. (1983). In defense of external invalidity. American Psychologist,38(4), 379–387. Scholar
  20. Najmi, S., & Amir, N. (2010). The effect of attention training on a behavioral test of contamination fears in individuals with subclinical Obsessive-Compulsive symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology,119(1), 136–142. Scholar
  21. Olatunji, B. O., Cisler, J. M., Deacon, B. J., Connolly, K., & Lohr, J. M. (2007a). The Disgust Propensity and Sensitivity Scale-Revised: Psychometric properties and specificity in relation to anxiety disorder symptoms. Journal of Anxiety Disorders,21(7), 918–930. Scholar
  22. Olatunji, B. O., Leen-Feldner, E. W., Feldner, M. T., & Forsyth, J. P. (2007b). Experimental psychopathology. In D. McKay (Ed.), Handbook of research methods in abnormal and clinical psychology (pp. 47–60). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  23. Olatunji, B. O., Lohr, J. M., Sawchuk, C. N., & Tolin, D. F. (2007c). Multimodal assessment of disgust in contamination-related obsessive-compulsive disorder. Behaviour Research and Therapy,45, 263–276.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Olatunji, B. O., Tart, C. D., Ciesielski, B. G., McGrath, P. B., & Smits, J. A. J. (2011). Specificity of disgust vulnerability in the distinction and treatment of OCD. Journal of Psychiatric Research,45(9), 1236–1242. Scholar
  25. Rozin, P., Haidt, J., McCauley, C., Dunlop, L., & Ashmore, M. (1999). Individual differences in disgust sensitivity: Comparisons and evaluations of paper-and-pencil versus behavior measures. Journal of Research in Personality,33(3), 330–351. Scholar
  26. Smits, J. A. J., Telch, M. J., & Randall, P. K. (2002). An examination of the decline in fear and disgust during exposure-based treatment. Behaviour Research and Therapy,40, 1243–1253. Scholar
  27. Steketee, G. S., Grayson, J. B., & Foa, E. B. (1984). Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Differences between washers and checkers. Behavior Research and Therapy,23, 197–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Sullivan, G. M., & Feinn, R. (2012). Using effect size—or why the P value is not enough. Journal of Graduate Medical Education,4(3), 279–282. Scholar
  29. Tsao, S. D., & McKay, D. (2004). Behavioral avoidance tests and disgust in contamination fears: Distinctions from trait anxiety. Behaviour Research and Therapy,42(2), 207–216. Scholar
  30. van Overveld, W. J. M., de Jong, P. J., Peters, M. L., Cavanagh, K., & Davey, G. C. L. (2006). Disgust propensity and disgust sensitivity: Separate constructs that are differentially related to specific fears. Personality and Individual Differences,41(7), 1241–1252. Scholar
  31. van Overveld, M., de Jong, P. J., & Peters, M. L. (2010). The disgust propensity and sensitivity scale - revised: Its predictive value for avoidance behavior. Personality and Individual Differences,49(7), 706–711.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. van Overveld, M., de Jong, P. J., Peters, M. L., & Schouten, E. (2011). The Disgust Scale-R: A valid and reliable index to investigate separate disgust domains? Personality and Individual Differences,51(3), 325–330. Scholar
  33. Verwoerd, J., De Jong, P. J., Wessel, I., & van Hout, W. J. P. J. (2013). If I feel disgusted, I must be getting ill. Behaviour Research and Therapy,51, 122–127.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ArkansasFayettevilleUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychiatryYale University School of MedicineNew HavenUSA
  3. 3.Laureate Institute for Brain ResearchTulsaUSA
  4. 4.Clinical Neurosciences Division of the National Center for PTSDWest HavenUSA
  5. 5.Department of PsychologyUniversity of KentuckyLexingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations