Evolutionary Psychological Science

, Volume 3, Issue 2, pp 149–158 | Cite as

Disgust, Empathy, and Care of the Sick: an Evolutionary Perspective

  • Leander SteinkopfEmail author
Theoretical Article


The presence of a sick individual may induce two contradictory reactions in observers. On the one hand, empathy, sympathy, and compassion may arise and, thus, the motivation to help the sufferer. On the other hand, observers may feel disgust and, thus, might be motivated to avoid the sufferer. From an evolutionary perspective, the former reaction may be explained by kin selection or reciprocal altruism; the latter reaction may be explained by the risk of infection. In many cases, the two emotions and respective motivations might be in conflict. The paper addresses the question of how these conflicting emotions and motivations may bring about adaptive behavioral reactions toward a sick individual. Thereby, the paper yields implications for research on empathy, the behavioral immune system, and the therapeutic encounter.


Evolutionary psychology Darwinian medicine Therapeutic encounter Disgust Empathy Sympathy Compassion Helping Avoidance Discrimination Caregiving 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Comparative Developmental Psychology, Faculty for Education and PsychologyFreie Universitaet BerlinBerlinGermany
  2. 2.Institute of Medical Psychology, Medical FacultyLudwig-Maximilians-Universitaet MuenchenMunichGermany

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