Our politics play a significant role in the way we interact with others. We can be dismissive or intolerant of those with different politics to us — and research from 2020 even found that we prefer strangers who share our politics to actual friends who don’t.
New research, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, finds that this dislike can go beyond mere intolerance: the team finds that we can even feel physical disgust towards members of political outgroups — with potential repercussions to how we treat our political rivals.
The first study took place in 2018, just after midterm elections in the United States. Participants, who all had an affiliation with either the Democratic or Republican party, were presented with six blocks of ten questions. Each block presented 10 male faces with a neutral expression, accompanied by a description of their interests, age, and voting behaviour. Crucially, half of the men were said to have voted for the Democrats and the other the Republicans. For instance, one description read. “Ryan enjoys salads and sci-fi movies. He has 4 siblings and is currently 41 years old. Ryan exclusively voted for Republican Party candidates in the recent midterm election”.
Participants responded to questions about each man’s perceived traits: how gross, attractive, healthy, intelligent, moral or trustworthy they judged him to be.
Political affiliation had a significant impact on how gross participants felt men were, with Democrats rating Republicans as more gross and vice versa. Interestingly, this was primarily driven by Democratic participants, with a weaker effect in Republicans. There was a similar bias towards rating members of the political in-group as more attractive, intelligent, moral and trustworthy, though not healthy.
In the second study, participants again saw the same neutral faces and information as in the first. Five men were described as having voted exclusively for the Democratic Party and the other five the Republican Party. This time, participants were asked about disgust in more specific ways: how much they felt “disgusted”, “grossed out” and “nauseated” by each man, and how much they related to a picture of a woman making a gagging facial expression when viewing each face. Finally, they were asked how much the faces made them angry and whether they made their blood pressure rise, jaw clench, and face flush.
Again, participants felt more disgust and anger towards political outgroup members, whether expressed through physical descriptions, represented by an image, or described in words. This effect was much stronger, however, in the case of anger than it was disgust. There was also a stronger effect on participants’ feelings of being “disgusted” than on feelings of being “grossed out” or “nauseated”; this may indicate that we feel some form of metaphorical disgust when presented with our political rivals, rather than it being a case of purely physical reaction.
The final study took place in person. Participants were presented with the same expressions as in the first two studies, though instead of representing political affiliation in words the men were shown in t-shirts expressing support for one or other party. Again, participants responded to seven questions about the men: three around disgust, two around anger, and two around moral disapproval. The team also measured the facial expressions of participants as they viewed the images, rating them on how intensely they expressed emotions including disgust, surprise, sadness, and anger.
As in the first two studies, participants reported feeling more disgusted, grossed out, and nauseated when viewing images of outgroup members than those of the same political affiliation; they were also angrier and saw outgroup members as less moral and less trustworthy. However there was no significant effect of seeing members of the political outgroup on participants’ own expressions of disgust, and there was only a very weak effect on their expressions of anger.
Again, this points to the idea that we may report feeling disgust at members of the political outgroup — and even, sometimes, use the language of physical nausea — but not express it in a fully embodied way. In this sense, disgust may represent a combination of things: a moral and metaphorical understanding of the experience along with more physical elements. Setting may also have played a part here: facial expressions serve a social purpose, and so we may not emote as strongly when alone in a cubicle.
Future research could look at these different elements of disgust, as well as explore how (or whether) this affects the way we treat our political rivals. The team notes, for example, that feelings of anger can lead to confrontation, aggression, and punishment. It would be interesting to know whether disgust — metaphorical, moral, or physical — changes our behaviour, either in interpersonal or political settings.