October 25, 2011
Greater Disgust Response Associated With Political Right?

John Alford and John Hibbing, noted researchers on the biological basis of political orientation, have joined with a few other researchers in a Plos One report on evidence that rightward leaning people appear to have a stronger disgust reflex.

Disgust has been described as the most primitive and central of emotions. Thus, it is not surprising that it shapes behaviors in a variety of organisms and in a variety of contexts—including homo sapien politics. People who believe they would be bothered by a range of hypothetical disgusting situations display an increased likelihood of displaying right-of-center rather than left-of-center political orientations. Given its primal nature and essential value in avoiding pathogens disgust likely has an effect even without registering in conscious beliefs. In this article, we demonstrate that individuals with marked involuntary physiological responses to disgusting images, such as of a man eating a large mouthful of writhing worms, are more likely to self-identify as conservative and, especially, to oppose gay marriage than are individuals with more muted physiological responses to the same images. This relationship holds even when controlling for the degree to which respondents believe themselves to be disgust sensitive and suggests that people's physiological predispositions help to shape their political orientations.

The report has an intro with a pretty interesting survey of what is known about the biological basis for political orientation. Here's an excerpt:

Disgust has been referred to as “the most visceral of all basic emotions” [11] and the lust-disgust axis is often seen as the original building block of all emotions [12]. The role of disgust in the avoidance of disease, one of the primary sources of mortality over the centuries, makes it essential to survival [13]. Numerous connections between disgust responses and social behavior have been identified [14][16]. The foundation for hypothesizing a connection between disgust response and political behavior more specifically is anchored the groundbreaking work of Haidt and colleagues [17], [18]. On the basis of numerous large N surveys, Haidt reports that people on the left make judgments primarily on the basis of two “moral foundations:” harm avoidance and a desire for fairness/equity. People on the political right, on the other hand, display similar attention to harm avoidance and fairness but demonstrate additional concerns for purity, in-group/loyalty, and authority/structure. Interestingly, these differences in moral foundations hold up across cultures [18], a finding consistent with the work of Schwartz on cross-cultural similarity in the relationship between political orientations and patterns of values as well as work on the relationship between political orientations and personality traits across cultures [19][21]. This nuanced view of differentially weighted decision considerations is the basis for expecting people on the right to be more likely to emphasize purity/disgust as a foundation for moral and political orientations.

What I want to know: Once offspring genetic engineering becomes possible will the population as a whole shift left or right? Or will the population splinter into 2 or more factions that are more strongly their pure type? (e.g. leftists with even stronger desires for equality of outcomes and right-wingers with even stronger desires for loyalty or authority). In other words, will humanity splinter into mutually incomprehensible or hostile factions made so by genetic differences that cause deep differences in moral natures?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2011 October 25 08:47 PM  Brain Ethics Law

Not anon or anoymous! said at October 26, 2011 12:37 AM:

Equality of outcome?

Isn't that monoculture? Evolution hasn't been very pleasant to those...

Trast said at October 26, 2011 1:50 AM:

How significant are their study results? Folks on the left routinely make appeals to purity/disgust (capital punishment is "barbaric" and income inequality / rich people / corporations / banks / immigration reform / police / hummers / development on undeveloped land / etc are "disgusting."

Are the study authors speaking of the results as "conservatives have greater disgust response" instead of "liberals have lesser disgust response" (assuming they're measuring something meaningful) because they view conservatives as deviating from the norm? If that's the case, that would seem to raise the chances that they messed up in any number of other areas of the study.

Brett Bellmore said at October 26, 2011 4:43 AM:

The disgust response they were measuring was to, essentially, gross images. The sort of thing that causes disgust in most people the instant the brain parses the image, and realizes what's there. Generally, an evolved response to situations which carry a serious risk of infection. (Most instinctively disgusting situations do.)

What liberals appeal to is a sort of intellectual/moral disgust. Really, more of a metaphorical relationship to the sort of "disgust" this study was looking at, than the actual emotion. More "OMG, somebody disagrees with my moral precepts!" than "OMG, doing that could get you parasites!".

In fact, it may be that liberals try to invoke disgust towards intellectual concepts because their disgust response isn't properly linked to fecal matter, maggots, and the other basic warning signs of risk of infection that disgust usually is invoked by. A kind of displacement reaction, or effort to exploit an emotion they don't themselves quite get.

Fat Man said at October 26, 2011 7:00 AM:

It is fallacious and reductionist to attribute ideas to personal characteristics.
As George Will has said: "Professors have reasons for their beliefs. Other people, particularly conservatives, have social and psychological explanations for theirbeliefs."

Trast said at October 26, 2011 10:58 AM:

The study authors aren't just talking about involuntary reactions to disgusting images: "People on the right [are] more likely to emphasize purity/disgust as a foundation for moral and political orientations."

What they should have been thinking more about: Basic emotional reactions like disgust drive most political opinions even if they're not spoken of as the primary reason. If liberals say "I oppose the death penalty because it's so expensive," they're nonetheless most often basing their opinion on a basic disgust reaction, and simply recruiting arguments after the fact to explain & justify their core emotional reaction. The study authors would have been fooled by this. We can confirm this by asking liberals if they would support the death penalty if it was cheaper than life imprisonment, and their response will almost always be to now find new arguments to justify their core emotional reaction.

Even the core issues for liberalism, like the preference for hunter-gatherer style social structure (low hierarchy & inequality, and everyone shares for free regardless of merit), are based on core, evolved emotional reactions similar to disgust.

It reminds me of a study last summer when some professors got together, assigned conservative attitudes the status of "base, evolved instincts" and liberal attitudes the status of "refined, higher instincts," and then newspapers ran the headline 'Study: Liberals More Evolved Than Conservatives.'

PacRim Jim said at October 26, 2011 1:55 PM:

Which is the cause, and which the effect?

Dave said at October 27, 2011 9:43 AM:

I haven't seen this particular study, but a lot of these things find some small difference in a physical reaction, with a weak correlation to political views, then go out and announce a "physiological basis for political orientation" with a press release spun to favor the authors' own views. There was one a few years ago that measured a fear response, and the press chose to spin it as "Conservatives More Fearful", when an equally valid interpretation would have been "Liberals Slow to Recognize Danger". This field seems to be a lot of politics and journalism, with very little science.

drjohn said at October 27, 2011 12:41 PM:

This will show up on Buffoon tomorrow.

Good grief what a waste if time and money.

Dr. Alben said at October 27, 2011 6:39 PM:

I would design my children to be as genetically confounding as possible. Predictable people make for good slaves.

phos said at October 29, 2011 9:42 AM:

Left/right is too limited a spectrum. I wonder how this study would line up on the statist/libertarian axis?

Malcolm Reading III said at October 31, 2011 9:29 AM:

This reminds me of the George Lakoff scam science where he tried to use his prestige as a linguistic scientist to enhance his credibility on the political soapbox. Professors are political animals like everyone else, perhaps more so.

Too often academics decide what effect they are aiming for, then design their study or model so that they can achieve this effect. It has become a standing joke in climate science, but such academic scams have been around for a long time.

Jake Peachey said at November 1, 2011 7:11 PM:

The biological instincts of genetic imprint that affect behavior are pretty much the same in all primates; the most important of the instincts relate to the biological imperative of reproduction. Unlike the other primates, man historically was largely a predatory carnivore.

Note the instinctual differences between the carnivorous and herbivorous creatures. Herbivorous animals tended easily socialize in herds and do not actively seek to other animals except as it relates to self-defense. Carnivorous animals inhabit the world of red tooth and claw: the kill or be killed competition in mating and territory.

Thus man comes by his criminal tendencies as biologically imprinted genetic behavior. No tabula rasa fiction (the clean slate) needed here.

The economy of hunting and gathering supported exponentially less population per square mile when comparing to modern agriculture in developed countries. If you wanted to make sure your posterity grew and survived (the biological imperative) prehistoric man warred against the competition which often resulted in genocide. (Now you know what happened to the Neanderthals)

Those of us who really appreciate civilization, that is founded upon religious ideas that countermand and control the behavior of genetic imprint, find the exhibition of bestial side of animal man disturbing and disgusting.

It is this alternate operating software (religious ideas) that makes civilization possible. Even the phrase "rule of law" is a formulation that can only be called religious because the only thing that science can teach us is the lesson of nature: survival of the fittest, kill or be killed, for the advancement of the most successful gene pool of the physical animal.

The Analyst said at December 19, 2011 11:49 PM:

"This reminds me of the George Lakoff scam science where he tried to use his prestige as a linguistic scientist to enhance his credibility on the political soapbox. Professors are political animals like everyone else, perhaps more so."

I really doubt his book was pure BS. I haven't read it, but from secondary materials it seems that he put some effort into shooting down oversimplified ideas.


As for a lot of these political social psychology studies, I really wish they'd focus more on sub-typing various ideologues. I'd think it's pretty obvious that "liberals" aren't uniformly "less prone to disgust" than conservatives, I'm sure some subgroups have high levels of visceral disgust. The notion of liberal-conservative polarization is somewhat unique to the US, as other countries have multiparty systems and the various caveats and nuances probably apply to said parties profile of supports. I'd suspect a lot of the findings various studies have about "liberals" would only apply to the moderate left (Eysenk's work on tender-mindedness, for instance - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_spectrum#Eysenck.27s_research - and the notion that those with "moderate [as opposed to extremist] liberal beliefs" have the greatest "integrative complexity" - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right-wing_authoritarianism#Right_and_left).

Wiki articles, I know, but good summaries of the research (and I'm not feeling like digging through the primary material at this point).

As for the notion of what would happen if the population became more or less disgust prone or polarized along levels I disgust, I suspect political framing of issues (as opposed to actual public policies advocated) would change.

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