The COVID-19 Pandemic Seems to Have Changed How We Feel About Gross Stuff

New research shows that COVID-19—particularly the fear of catching the virus—has increased people's disgust sensitivity.  

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Photo: Getty Images / Design by Jo Imperio

If you've been feeling more sensitive to gory movies or your partner's odd food choices, COVID-19 may be to blame: New research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, shows that disgust sensitivity—the level at which you experience "gross" things—has increased during the pandemic.

Disgust has long been thought of as an evolutionary trait—something to help humans avoid things that could potentially make them sick (think: certain bugs, bodily fluids, signals of disease). To that effect, it's an important part of our "behavioral immune system," to help us avoid contact with pathogens.

Everyone has this disgust sensitivity to some extent, but some experienced a stronger reaction to disgust than others—something that has puzzled researchers for years. One theory—which was the intended focus of this new research—is what's known as the "calibration hypothesis," which suggests that a person's disgust sensitivity can adapt depending on their likelihood of contracting a disease.

Enter: the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the new study wasn't designed to measure disgust sensitivity during the pandemic specifically, researchers found that disgust sensitivity increased after the coronavirus outbreak, especially in those who were especially worried about contracting the disease. Here's what to know about how and why our collective disgust sensitivity has increased during the pandemic—and what it means for you.

What the new research says about disgust sensitivity and the COVID-19 pandemic

For the study, researchers from The Ohio State University conducted nine surveys between late 2018 and June 2020, according to a press release from OSU. Before the pandemic began, researchers initially collected data from 2,300 patients in seven batches of surveys. With the arrival of the pandemic in late 2019 and early 2020, researchers conducted two more surveys of 500 people each—one group of new participants, another of participants from pre-pandemic surveys—to get a more longitudinal look at disgust sensitivity.

Researchers used what's known as the Disgust Scale-Revised, focusing specifically on the contamination subscale. That means participants were surveyed mainly about their disgust around pathogens that can make them ill, versus other things that can be considered "disgusting" to some, like sexual or moral sensitivities.

The scale asked participants to rate various experiences—from standing next to a sneezing person on an elevator, to being offered a piece of chocolate shaped like dog poop, to seeing someone put ketchup on ice cream and eating it—on a scale of 0–5, from least to most disgusting. In the post-pandemic surveys, participants were also asked about their pandemic-related behaviors and opinions (like how concerned they were about contracting COVID-19).

Researchers found that, pre-pandemic, the average disgust sensitivity of participants was 2.82; after COVID-19 hit, it rose to 3.26. "Our major finding in this study is that disgust sensitivity did, in fact, increase after the pandemic happened, Shelby Boggs, a PhD candidate in the department of psychology at Ohio State University, and first author of the study, tells Health. According to researchers, this backs up the "calibration hypothesis" that our disgust sensitivity can change over time, depending on circumstances. "If our environment has a lot of pathogens in it, it would be adaptive for us to have a disgust sensitive response because that means that we can avoid those things," says Boggs. It wasn't just an increased disgust toward potential pathogens either—it seems as though participants' entire disgust sensitivity profiles changed, too, study authors said.

Participants specific reactions to the pandemic influenced their disgust sensitivity as well: "Leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic, we [found] that disgust sensitivity increased following the COVID-19 outbreak, and that the degree of this increase was moderated by an individual's subjective concern about contracting the disease," according to the study. Essentially, people who felt more concerned about getting COVID-19 experienced greater increases in disgust sensitivity.

According to Boggs, the increase in disgust sensitivity during COVID-19 could have a notable impact on health. "If we are experiencing disgust and our disgust sensitivity increases, presumably, the theory would suggest that we should be avoiding more known pathogens and getting sick less often," she says. "So that could potentially promote a better immune system and more immunity." Of course, that would take more long-term research on disgust sensitivity, which Boggs is hopeful to continue.

The good news: If you have experienced increased disgust sensitivity, it likely won't be permanent, based on the findings of this research. "Experiencing disgust all the time is not a fun state to be in. It's a very vigilant emotion," Boggs said in the press release. "My suspicion is if we recontacted people a year or two out of pandemic mode, they probably would have gone back down in disgust sensitivity levels. If the threat subsides, then presumably your disgust sensitivity should subside as well."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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