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Disgust propensity has a causal link to the stigmatization of people with cancer


Disgust-driven stigma may be motivated by an assumption that a stigmatized target presents a disease threat, even in the absence of objective proof. Accordingly, even non-contagious diseases, such as cancer, can become stigmatized by eliciting disgust. This study had two parts: a survey (n = 272), assessing the association between disgust traits and cancer stigma; and an experiment, in which participants were exposed to a cancer surgery (n = 73) or neutral video (n = 68), in order to test a causal mechanism for the abovementioned association. Having a higher proneness to disgust was associated with an increased tendency to stigmatize people with cancer. Further, a significant causal pathway was observed between disgust propensity and awkwardness- and avoidance-based cancer stigma via elevated disgust following cancer surgery exposure. In contrast, those exposed to cancer surgery not experiencing elevated disgust reported less stigma than controls. Exposure-based interventions, which do not elicit disgust, may be profitable in reducing cancer stigma.

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This research was supported by a postgraduate studentship grant to Haffiezhah Azlan from MARA Education Sponsorship Division, Malay for Indigenous People’s Trust Council (MARA), MARA Head Office 21, Jalan Raja Laut 50609 Kuala Lumpur: 330408224812.

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Correspondence to Philip A. Powell.

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Haffiezhah A. Azlan, Paul G. Overton, Jane Simpson, and Philip A. Powell declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committee (Department of Psychology Ethics Committee, University of Sheffield) and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Human and animal rights and Informed consent

All procedures followed were in accordance with ethical standards of the responsible committee on human experimentation (institutional and national) and with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975, as revised in 2000. Informed consent was obtained from all patients for being included in the study.

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Azlan, H.A., Overton, P.G., Simpson, J. et al. Disgust propensity has a causal link to the stigmatization of people with cancer. J Behav Med 43, 377–390 (2020).

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  • Avoidance
  • Cancer
  • Disgust propensity
  • Disease-avoidance
  • Exposure
  • Stigma