The Politics Of Yuck
What a fascinating story in The Atlantic: scientists have established a connection between one’s political views and one’s innate physical sensitivity to disgust. Excerpts:
As Montague mapped the neuroimaging data against ideology, he recalls, “my jaw dropped.” The brains of liberals and conservatives reacted in wildly different ways to repulsive pictures: Both groups reacted, but different brain networks were stimulated. Just by looking at the subjects’ neural responses, in fact, Montague could predict with more than 95 percent accuracy whether they were liberal or conservative.
The subjects in the trial were also shown violent imagery (men pointing revolvers directly at the camera, battle scenes, car wrecks) and pleasant pictures (smiling babies, beautiful sunsets, cute bunnies). But it was only the reaction to repulsive things that correlated with ideology. “I was completely flabbergasted by the predictability of the results,” Montague says.
His collaborators—John Hibbing and Kevin Smith at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and John Alford at Rice University, in Houston—were just as surprised, though less by the broad conclusion than by the specificity of the findings and the startling degree of predictability. Their own earlier research had already yielded a suggestive finding, indicating that conservatives tend to have more pronounced bodily responses than liberals when shown stomach-churning imagery. However, the investigators had expected that brain reactions to violent imagery would also be predictive of ideology. Compared with liberals, they’d previously found, conservatives generally pay more attention—and react more strongly—to a broad array of threats. For example, they have a more pronounced startle response to loud noises, and they gaze longer at photos of people displaying angry expressions. And yet even in this research, Hibbing says, “we almost always get clearer results with stimuli that are disgusting than with those that suggest a threat from humans, animals, or violent events. We have an ongoing discussion in our lab about whether this is because disgust is simply a more powerful and more politically relevant emotion or because it is an emotion that is easier to evoke with still images in a lab setting.”
The piece says that scientists don’t have a good explanation for this, only theories, most of which have to do with the idea that it’s an evolutionary adaptation to protect the group from unknown threats. It’s interesting to consider this in light of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations work, which shows that conservatives have a much wider palette from which to draw their political views, whereas liberals focus mostly on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating. More:
No doubt your own political allegiances will heavily influence what you extract from the bulk of this research. If you’re liberal, you may be thinking, So this explains some of the other side’s nativism and hostility to immigration. But it’s just as easy to flip the science on its head and conclude, as conservatives might, that the left is composed of clueless naïfs whose rosy-eyed optimism about human nature—and obliviousness to various dangers—will only lead to trouble.
The research itself does not speak to the relative merits of a conservative or liberal ethos—how could it? Conservatism and liberalism are not monolithic, and they rest on deep intellectual traditions. In terms of gut reactions, the relative appeal of each philosophy can depend significantly on context—for instance, on whether times are kind or cruel. When tensions are high and groups split into factions, as they inevitably do, we can depend on our family and friends to defend our interests—but the outsider is an unknown quantity and, from an evolutionary perspective, may be seen as a source of contamination or, more generally, a threat.
One defining characteristic of disgust, though, is that it occupies a blind spot in our psyche. As Pizarro notes, “It’s such a low-level, almost noncognitive emotion that you really aren’t thinking that much about it.” Compared with anger, happiness, and sadness, he says, disgust is also “less open to change based on your judgment, your thoughts, your reasoning.” Chocolate in the shape of dog poop, he points out, is still gross. The emotion is more reflexive than reflective. “That is the rhetorical strength of disgust,” Pizarro says. “It’s a little hack. You hack into brains pretty quickly and easily by making them feel disgust,” bypassing logic and reason to sway judgment.
This could be why the tee-tee tweet from right-wing Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro is so controversial. Bolsonaro tweeted out a short clip of two perverts gallivanting on a balcony at Rio’s Carnival, performing for the crowd below. One of them urinated on the other, who received the “golden shower” gratefully. Liberal opponents of Bolsonaro raised hell about his supposedly prudish tweet. Bolsonaro knows what he’s doing, though. He trolled the Left into defending an act that most people understandably find revolting.
Here’s something interesting. On Jonathan Haidt’s test for moral foundations, I scored unusually high on the “purity” scale. It so happens that I am extremely sensitive to certain aromas that most people find disgusting (and even some that most people don’t). It’s so bad that there are times when I will have to leave the room quickly so as not to vomit (which means my wife is the one left behind to clean up the dog poop, and suchlike). It is entirely involuntary. Entirely. When I was a kid, I couldn’t be nearby when the men gutted and skinned a deer they had killed. It wasn’t the visual imagery; it was the smell. I would double over gagging, and couldn’t help myself.
This is also why I can taste and smell pleasant nuances in food and drink, and enjoy eating more than most people. Two of my three kids are the same way — except their sensitivities are ramped up so much that they don’t like to eat things that taste vivid. All three of us can detect aromas that most people can’t, and when we find them unpleasant, we also find them to be intolerable. Weirdly, my daughter cannot stand the aroma of bananas. It’s so severe for her that we don’t eat them in her presence. Just the sight and smell of a banana is enough to put her on the edge of vomiting.
Does this have anything to do with my conservative politics? Maybe — but how would this theory account for the extreme sensitivity that so many left-wing college students have to the mere presence of conservatives in their midst? Yale University convulsed a few years back over Erika Christakis’s e-mail suggesting that the university shouldn’t police Halloween costumes. Those kids weren’t right-wingers.