This week’s issue of New Scientist has a fascinating and often amusing article on “The Yuck Factor.” It explores the latest research on how our sense of disgust may subtly affect our opinions and behaviors — including our political opinions and voting behavior.
Studies suggest, writes New Scientist editor Alison George, that when we are feeling disgust (say, when we’re put in room with a filthy table or with a noxious aroma), we tend to be more judgmental.
We’re also more likely to express prejudices toward social groups we view as “others.”
Interestingly, particularly during this election year, research has also found a link between how easily individuals feel disgust and their political leanings. Writes George:
[T]he more “disgustable you are the more likely you are to be politically conservative, says [Cornell University psychologist David] Pizarro, who has studied this correlation. Similarly, the more conservative that people are, the harsher their moral judgements become in the presence of disgust stimuli.
Together, these findings raise all sorts of interesting, and troubling, questions about people’s prejudices, and the ways in which they might be influenced or even deliberately manipulated. Humanity already has a track record of using digust as a weapon against “outsiders” — lower castes, immigrants and homosexuals. Nazi propaganda notoriously depicted Jewish people as filthy rats.
Now there is empirical evidence that inducing disgust can cause people to shun certain minority groups — at least temporarily.
George describes a couple of the experiments that support this finding. In one, Pizarro and his colleagues asked people to fill out a questionnaire about their feelings toward various social groups, such as the elderly or homosexuals. Some of the participants completed the questionnaires in a room that had been primed with a foul-smelling fart spray, although the odor was not mentioned to them.
“While the whiff did not influence people’s feelings towards many social groups, one effect was stark: those in the smelly room, on average, felt less warmth towards homosexual men compared to participants in a non-smelly room,” writes George. “The effect was of equal strength among political liberals and conservatives. This finding is consistent with previous studies showing that a stronger susceptibility to disgust is linked with disapproval of gay people.”
In another experiment, people were shown photos of different disease pathogens. The images made them feel more vulnerable to disease — and less favorably (more xenophobic) toward foreign and unfamiliar groups of people.
“It’s not that I think we could change liberals to conservatives by grossing them out,” Pizarro told George, “but sometimes all you need is a temporary little boost.”
Pizarro also pointed out, writes George, “that if there happened to be disgust triggers in or around a polling station, for example, it could in principle sway undecided voters to a more conservative decision.”
Indeed, “grossing out” voters has already been used as a means of influencing them, as George points out:
In April this year, Republicans made hay of a story about President Barack Obama eating dog meat as a boy, which was recounted in his memoir. The criticism of Obama might have seemed like the typical, if surreal, electioneering you would expect in the run-up to a presidential election, but the psychology of disgust suggests that it would have struck deeper with many voters than the Democrats might have realized.
Other politicians have gone further when employing disgust to win votes. Ahead of the primaries for the 2010 gubernatorial election in New York state, candidate Carl Paladino of the Tea Party sent out thousands of flyers impregnated with the smell of rotten garbage, with a message to “get rid of the stink” alongside pictures of his rivals. While Paladino didn’t manage to beat his Democrat opponent in the race to be governor, some political analysts believe his bold tactics and smelly flyers helped him thrash rivals to win the Republican nomination against the odds.
New Scientist keeps its articles behind a paywall. To read George’s article, you’ll need to pick up the July 14-20 issue of the magazine at a newsstand or your local library.