Consumption, contact and copulation: How pathogens have shaped human psychological adaptations

Debra Lieberman, Joseph Billingsley, Carlton Patrick

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Disgust is an emotion intimately linked to pathogen avoidance. Building on prior work, we suggest disgust is an output of programmes that evolved to address three separate adaptive problems: what to eat, what to touch and with whom to have sex. We briefly discuss the architecture of these programmes, specifying their perceptual inputs and the contextual factors that enable them to generate adaptive and flexible behaviour. We propose that our sense of disgust is the result of these programmes and occurs when infor-mation-processing circuitries assess low expected values of consumption, low expected values of contact or low expected sexual values. This conception of disgust differs from prior models in that it dissects pathogen-related selection pressures into adaptive problems related to consumption and contact rather than assuming just one pathogen disgust system, and it excludes moral disgust from the domain of disgust proper. Instead, we illustrate how low expected values of consumption and contact as well as low expected sexual values can be used by our moral psychology to provide multiple causal links between disgust and morality. This article is part of the Theo Murphy meeting issue ‘Evolution of pathogen and parasite avoidance behaviours’.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20170203
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1751
StatePublished - Jul 19 2018


  • Disgust
  • Morality
  • Pathogen avoidance
  • Sexual disgust

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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