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 , 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.