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The given paper is dedicated to the exploration of the potential effects of environmental/social factors on disgust expression and perception in women and men. The functions of emotional expression are briefly discussed, and in-depth exploration of gender differences in disgust sensitivity is provided. The analysis is based on the evidence collected from quantitative and qualitative studies, as well as theories discussed by Al-Shawaf et al. Although social roles theory and evolutionary psychology seem to explain the empirical evidence on higher disgust propensity and sensitivity in females, further scientific investigation is needed to achieve conclusive results.
Disgust is an emotional response to “violations of physical purity,” such as spoiled food, unpleasant odors, and sex taboos (Aleman and Swart e3622). Similar to all emotions and their expressions, it has certain functionality. Theoretically, it functions to protect from various hazards including those posed by infections, risky sexual behaviors, and others. Whereas emotional expression is characteristic to all human beings, research evidence indicates the existence of marked gender differences in disgust sensitivity, that is to say, the degree to which a person feels rejection and hostility towards common disgust elicitors.
Nowadays, numerous hypotheses, trying to clarify gender differences related to disgust expression, exist. According to the evolutionary metatheory discussed by Al-Shawaf et al., women are more sensitive to disgust stimuli because “they have recurrently faced different adaptive problems over the course of human evolutionary history” (Sex Differences in Disgust 156). Based on this, the given paper will aim to explore the assumption that environmental (social) stimuli associated with gender roles largely define individuals’ disgust behaviors.
Materials and Methods
Academic papers for the literature review were retrieved through such databases as ProQuest, ScienceDirect, and PubMed. The inclusion criteria were relevance (the paper explicitly studied emotional expression, its functions, and gender differences associated with it), depth (the paper provides a profound description of the subject and implements empirical methods), and utility (the study contributes to the understanding of the stated problem). To analyze the collected evidence, the inductive method of meta-ethnography was utilized. It includes the following steps: an investigation of the studies, determination of common themes and links between them, synthesis of different study findings, and their interpretation.
Disgust propensity and sensitivity are directly correlated with individuals’ reactions to disgust-provoking stimuli. Evidence shows that women have higher disgust on self-reported measures, such as Disgust Scale and Disgust Propensity and Sensitivity Scale (Skolnick 145; Grauvogl et al. 1524), and demonstrate a significant advantage in recognition of emotional expressions, as well as their intensity (Wingenbach et al. 13).
Both of the advantages in women’s perception and recognition of disgust can be explained from the perspective of the social role theory. For instance, it is suggested that females’ better ability to read facial expressions is linked to the primary female role of caretaker and the associated need to recognize the emotional states of family members (Wingenbach et al. 14). Higher disgust propensity in women may be dictated by gender-role-based expectations as well.
For instance, Skolnick et al. note that “by presenting themselves as low in disgust, men can avoid appearing weak and less masculine,” while the high manifestation of disgust, as well as other emotions, in women, may help them relate to other females (85). These data indicate that both gender roles and evolutionary psychology may serve as predictors of greater disgust propensity and sensitivity in women.
The specific theory attempting to explain gender differences in disgust expression suggests that mothers play a more valuable parenting role from the evolutionary perspective. Based on the assumption that women take a more important part in the survival of children, Al-Shawaf et al. state that selection may “act more intensely on female psychology to avoid harm” (Sex Differences in Disgust 153).
The given hypothesis is in line with the claim by Hess and Thibault concerning the functionality of emotion expressions as a hereditary and evolved protection mechanism (120). Secondly, it is observed that disgust propensity may be correlated with individuals’ mating strategies. Al-Shawaf et al. note that when a person complies with the short-term mating strategy, which usually implies multiple sex partners and greater sexual variety than the long-term one, their disgust sensitivity is insignificant (Disgust and Mating Strategy 200). The latter hypothesis was supported by the findings of the empirical research of 247 participants (women n=144 and men n=103) (Al-Shawaf et al., Disgust and Mating Strategy 200). However, the former one is currently not supported by scientific evidence.
A clear and accurate explanation of evidence regarding women’s higher propensity and sensitivity to disgust-provoking stimuli lacks in literature. Nevertheless, social role theory and evolutionary psychology seem to be the best options for the interpretation of the empirical data obtained in a plethora of research studies devoted to gender differences in emotional expression. Traditionally, females are expected to comply with such feminine gender roles as caretaker and nurturer and to have such qualities as softness and emotionality.
At the same time, historically, men played the roles of breadwinners and protectors and, according to gender-based stereotypes, are expected to be assertive and strong. Thus, it is possible to presume that individuals’ sensitivity to disgust may be largely defined by their perceptions of the given emotion. Since disgust may be partly associated with fear of an object/phenomenon, as well as hostility, it may be regarded as the manifestation of weakness and, therefore, males may tend to suppress disgust. At the same time, the gender role of caretaker is associated with the long-term mating strategy and the need to maintain the health of children.
Throughout the evolution, it could provide females with a cognitive advantage in reacting to disgust-provoking stimuli and recognizing the emotions of others. To verify both of the suggestions, further empirical research is required.
Aleman, André, and Marte Swart. “Sex Differences in Neural Activation to Facial Expressions Denoting Contempt and Disgust.” PloS ONE, vol. 3, no. 11, 2008, p. e3622.
Al-Shawaf, Laith, et al. “Disgust and Mating Strategy.” Evolution and Human Behavior, vol. 36, no. 3, 2015, pp. 199-205.
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Al-Shawaf, Laith, et al. “Sex Differences in Disgust: Why Are Women More Easily Disgusted Than Men?” Emotion Review, vol. 10, no. 2, 2018, pp. 149-160.
Grauvogl, Andrea, et al. “Disgust and Sexual Arousal in Young Adult Men and Women.” Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 44, no. 6, 2015, pp. 1515-1525.
Hess, Ursula, and Pascal Thibault. “Darwin and Emotion Expression.” American Psychologist, vol. 64, no. 2, 2009, pp. 120-128.
Skolnick, Alexander J. “Gender Differences When Touching Something Gross: Unpleasant? No. Disgusting? Yes!” The Journal of General Psychology, vol. 140, no. 2, 2013, pp. 144-157.
Skolnick, Alexander J., et al. “Gender Role Expectations of Disgust: Men Are Low and Women Are High.” Sex Roles, vol. 69, no. 1-2, 2013, pp. 72-88.
Wingenbach, Tanja, et al. “Sex Differences in Facial Emotion Recognition across Varying Expression Intensity Levels from Videos.” PLoS ONE, vol. 13, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-18.