That’s according to Gordon Hodson and Kimberly Costello, who say that in the same way that core disgust guards the bodily boundary, interpersonal disgust may serve to guard cultural boundaries, by averting us from people who are not members of our group, and drawing us to those who are.
Hodson and Costello asked 103 English Canadian students questions about their disgust sensitivity, their political orientations, their fear of disease and their attitudes to immigrants and other marginalised groups like foreigners, homosexuals, drug addicts and the poor.
High sensitivity to interpersonal disgust was associated with right-wing authoritarian beliefs, a less-than-human perception of immigrants and negative attitudes to marginalised groups such as the poor. It was also associated with more positive attitudes towards other English Canadians.
Other types of disgust sensitivity, such as aversion to eating monkey meat (core disgust) to touching dead bodies (death-related disgust) and to people watching pornography involving animals (sex-related disgust) were correlated with interpersonal disgust, but did not themselves predict racist or prejudice attitudes once levels of interpersonal disgust were taken into account.
Interpersonal disgust sensitivity – not wanting to wear clean second hand clothes is another example – continued to predict racist attitudes even after fear of disease was taken into account. Hodson and Costello said such sensitivity may “reflect powerful symbolic cultural forces that socialise withdrawal strategies to protect the self from potentially offensive objects, including social groups.”
Hodson told the Digest his lab are testing desensitisation procedures in the hope of reducing prejudice: “If disgust sensitive people are more prejudiced then efforts to reduce disgust sensitivity through systematic desensitisation and related procedures (i.e. presenting participants with basic disgusting stimuli and intergroup disgust stimuli under controlled settings paired with relaxation) should help to reduce prejudice.”
Hodson, G. & Costello, K. (2007). Interpersonal disgust, ideological orientations, and dehumanisation as predictors of intergroup attitudes. Psychological Science, 18, 691-698.
Image credit: Credit: Wellcome Library, London. An expression of disgust. 1872 From: The expression of the emotions in man and animals / By: Charles Darwin Published: J. Murray,London : 1872.