People easily disgusted by sweat, urine and other body odors are more likely to support authoritarian ideas, reports a provocative study published Tuesday by a team of Swedish researchers.
The study also found an association — albeit a weak one — between strong feelings of disgust for body odors and support for President Trump.
“People who were more disgusted by smells were also more likely to vote for Donald Trump than those who were less sensitive,” said Jonas Olofsson, the study’s senior author and a psychologist at the University of Stockholm, in a released statement. “We thought that was interesting because Donald Trump talks frequently about how different people disgust him. He thinks that women are disgusting and that immigrants spread disease and it comes up often in his rhetoric.”
“It fits with our hypothesis that his supporters would be more easily disgusted themselves,” he adds.
A basic human emotion
Before you completely turn up your nose at such research, you should understand why studies like this are being done. As Olofsson and his co-authors point out in their paper, a growing field of scientific literature suggests that human behavior may be driven, at least in part, by psychological mechanisms that help us avoid pathogens that threaten our health and survival. Disgust — a basic human emotion — may therefore have evolved to help us stay clear of those pathogens.
The Swedish researchers — and others — believe there may be a link between the strength of a person’s feelings of disgust and how that person wants society to be structured. “Disgust may … underlie avoidance behaviours towards individuals and groups that are perceived foreign, strange, morally deviant, or norm violating,” they write.
One way of looking at prejudice, Olofsson and his colleagues add, is “as a social discriminatory behaviour partly motivated by the fact that pathogens represent an invisible threat, and individuals with high levels of disgust sensitivity might be more likely to avoid foreign people, and to promote policies that avoid the contact with them, because they are perceived as potentially spreading unfamiliar pathogens, different hygienic or food habits.”
Indeed, previous research has consistently linked high levels of disgust sensitivity to the stigmatization of ethnic and sexual minorities.
A three-part study
For their study, the Swedish resesarchers wanted to specifically see if people’s feelings of disgust regarding body odors could be linked to authoritarian attitudes.
“Odours originating from the human body are among the most potent triggers of disgust and having a strong body odour is considered socially stigmatizing,” they explain.
Their study consisted of three separate experiments. The researchers first asked 201 men and women (average age: 33) from around the world to complete an online survey. After answering questions about their political views, the participants were asked to rate on a seven-point scale how disgusting they found certain hypothetical situations. Some had to do with body odors (such as sitting next to someone whose feet smell strongly), while others didn’t (such as sitting next to someone who has red sores on their arm).
Participants were also asked to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with a series of statements that are widely used in research to determine authoritarianism attitudes, such as “Our country needs a powerful leader in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.”
An analysis of that data revealed that people who scored higher for disgust also tended to score higher for authoritarian attitudes. In addition, disgust for situations involving body odors was found to be a much stronger predictor of authoritarian attitudes than repulsion toward other situations.
Olofsson and his colleagues then repeated the experiment with 159 participants (median age: 35) from the United States. The results were similar.
In the third experiment, conducted in October 2016, a group of 391 U.S. participants (median age: 37) were asked — in addition to all the other questions — whom they intended to vote for in the upcoming presidential election, which was a month away.
The results found a weak but still statistically significant correlation between high levels of disgust for body odors and support for Trump — a result, write Olofsson and his co-authors, “that confirms the notion that in our study sample, Donald Trump was capable of attracting the sympathies of authoritarian voters.”
Limitations and implications
The study comes with several important caveats. Most notably, it is an observational study, so it doesn’t prove that disgust leads to certain political and social attitudes. In addition, the study’s participants were not randomly selected, but instead volunteered to answer the survey. They might not be representative, therefore, of larger populations. Furthermore, the study did not measure the participants’ disgust to actual odors, but only to hypothetical situations involving them.
It’s also important to point out that while an association was found between body-odor disgust and authoritarianism, no link was found with other measures of political conservatism — although Olofsson and his colleagues say that may be due to the types of questions that they asked.
Still, the findings are intriguing, particularly since they support other research in this field.
“There was a solid connection between how strongly someone was disgusted by smells and their desire to have a dictator-like leader who can suppress radical protest movements and ensure that different groups ‘stay in their places,’ ” said Olofsson. “That type of society reduces contact among different groups and, at least in theory, decreases the chance of becoming ill.”
Olofsson stresses, however, that his findings do not mean that authoritarian attitudes are so deeply ingrained that individuals are unable to shed them.
“The research has shown that the beliefs can change,” he said. “If contact is created between groups, authoritarians can change. It’s not carved in stone. Quite the opposite, beliefs can be updated when we learn new things.”