No, Conservatives Don’t Experience Feelings Of Disgust Any More Than Liberals

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By Emma Young

If you are left revolted by the sight of someone failing to wash their hands after visiting the bathroom, or by the idea of people engaging in sexual acts that you consider unacceptable, you’re more likely to be politically conservative than liberal, according to previous research. But now a new study, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, challenges the idea that disgust is an especially conservative emotion.

Julia Elad-Strenger at Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and her colleagues found that some scenarios in fact make liberals more disgusted than conservatives. “Taken together, our findings suggest that the differences between conservatives and liberals in disgust sensitivity are context-dependent rather than a stable personality difference,” the team writes.

Disgust is thought to have evolved to aid in the detection and avoidance of pathogens before they can enter the body. It entails a feeling of revulsion as well as thoughts of potential contamination of the body. And it’s thought that moral disgust developed from this biologically-focused response: faeces and rotten meat (which could harbour disease-causing bacteria) are disgusting, but so are perceived moral transgressions (incest, for example).

Over the past ten years, studies have found that people who are more readily disgusted by a variety of triggers are more likely to be politically conservative. Researchers have suggested that this is because conservatives are more concerned with “purity”-related moral transgressions than liberals, and so are more sensitive to potential “contaminators” within this realm.

To test these ideas, Elad-Strenger and her colleagues initially studied groups of German students. These groups consisted of roughly equal numbers leftists (most liberal), centrists and rightists (most conservative). The participants completed a general disgust sensitivity questionnaire, which assessed how often and how much they felt disgusted in daily life, and were also presented with various potentially disgust-eliciting scenarios. Some of these were designed to be “liberal” disgust-elicitors (scenarios concerning tax evasion, racism, xenophobia and capitalism, for example) while others were potentially more disgusting to conservatives (those referring to homosexuality, the consumption of illegal drugs and a homeless person begging for money, for instance). The participants were asked to rate how disgusted and angry each of these scenarios made them feel.

The team found no relationship between scores on the general disgust scale and political orientation. Neither did the conservatives report more disgust overall than the liberals. However, liberals were more affected by the liberal-disgust scenarios, while conservatives were more disgusted by the conservative-disgust selection (especially those relating to homosexuality). “Taken together, these results challenge the notion that conservatives are generally more disgust-sensitive than liberals,” the researchers note.

A further study of 190 German students explored scenarios involving body-related disgust (for example, seeing dog faeces or seeing someone not washing their hands after going to the bathroom), and also “pathogen disgust” (standing close to someone with body odour, for example). Overall, there was a positive correlation between conservatism and total disgust scores, but this was small. A closer analysis revealed that it was only the scenarios involving bad personal hygiene that triggered more disgust among conservatives, suggesting conservatives aren’t generally more disgusted than liberals, but perhaps experience more disgust in a few specific cases.

In a further study, the team looked at the responses of 202 American participants. The American liberals and conservatives responded in much the same way to the various individual scenarios as the Germans — with liberals more disgusted than conservatives by xenophobia and capitalism, for example, and conservatives more disgusted by homosexuality, for instance.

This study “provides further evidence that the relation between conservatism and disgust sensitivity can be positive, negative or nonsignificant depending on the nature and content of the disgust sensitivity measure,” the researchers write. Overall, their work suggests that claims that conservatives are more easily disgusted stem from an over-generalisation of findings related to specific triggers.

Is Disgust a “Conservative” Emotion?

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

7 thoughts on “No, Conservatives Don’t Experience Feelings Of Disgust Any More Than Liberals”

  1. Since, it seems, we now have a robust volume of evidence supporting equal disgust distributed amongst political ideologies, I would be interested in reviewing the initial experiments which found otherwise. With academia being overwhelmingly liberal this could be a case of the researchers’ biases influencing the methodology.

    Side note to the editor: poor job on this round to have the voting article reference the “conservatives are more prone to disgust” argument which this submission discounts. From context, I assume that was a reprint but if we don’t self-edit to remove research which has failed to replicate or been disproven then we cannot really consider psychology a science.

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  2. What a surprise, liberals are perceived as disgusted (twice) by the capitalism which supports their lifestyle, but evidently conservatives are tolerant of socialism. And liberals dislike tax evasion, but are ok with non-tax-paying panhandlers? Further evidence of studies contaminated by the questionnaires being compiled by hard-left students whose smug ‘wokeness’ blinds them to their own inability to produce balance.

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  3. I am curious to see how they identify whether people are “liberal” or “conservative”. What I suspect is that the labels are intermediary variables and the labels themselves are in transition and/or bifurcating. Previously conservativism has been linked with the personality trait of high conscientiousness, and liberalism with high openness, among other properties.

    There seem to be at least two types of “liberal” nowadays; those that we generally call the “far left” that embrace socialism, de-platforming, censorship, and evaluation by traits such as race, ethnicity, or religion, and an intolerance for criticism or differing views and the use of fear to silence critics. These appear much like the behaviours of the religious right, including blasphemy and offense as drivers of policy. Generally, these are low on openness to differing views.

    These differ from the individual liberty-focused liberals of the Civil Rights Movement, promoting free speech for all, “colour blindness”, judging not by colour of your skin but by the content of your character (or character of your content).

    So I’m curious if the “liberals” in this study who were high on disgust also rated high in conscientiousness and/or low on openness. I suspect we may have “conservative” Conservatives and “conservative” Liberals, and “liberal” Liberals, and maybe even some “liberal” Conservatives in the mix here, with respect to personalities, and the sorting needs to be more specific based on exactly where on the political groupings they fall and/or personality traits.

    Or, at least, we should check that before making conclusions. It’s become clear that the label of “liberal” is hotly contested these days by very different behaviours and viewpoints, so self-identity may not suffice.

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  4. A “rightist” in Germany is still a socialist. A “centrist” in Europe is a diehard socialist in the U.S.

    A cross culture comparison is invalid.

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  5. A prima facie opinion would be that soi-disant liberals and soi-disant conservatives are equally liable to disgust, but about different things.

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  6. Can you really equate dislike of ideas like capitalism, ‘xenophobia’, etc., with the type of visceral disgust illicitly from specific physical acts? How do they distinguish disgust from strong dislike or hatred? Plus for every ideological ‘disgust’ of the left there is likely an equivalent on the right (capitalism-communism). And setting up a test where you select items you know already disgust one party, it seems the study is rather contrived. Everyone feels some level of disgust, and if you weight it heavier towards the things people with lower levels tend to find ‘disgusting’ then it’s rigged. Knowing how religious people and new mothers are hyper disgust sensitive and naturally ‘conservative’, as well as how conscientious vs. open types correlate with disgust, the right bet is still on conservatives generally being a bit more sensitive.

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