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

Abstract

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.

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Correspondence to Leander Steinkopf.

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Steinkopf, L. Disgust, Empathy, and Care of the Sick: an Evolutionary Perspective. Evolutionary Psychological Science 3, 149–158 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40806-016-0078-0

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Keywords

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