The dirty politics of disgust

Natalie Keir examines the surprising power of disgust.

I often find that disgust is the most inconvenient of emotions. If I didn’t feel any disgust, there are so many day-to-day situations that would suddenly become less repulsive. I wouldn’t mind using the bathroom in the lizard (or being in the lizard itself for that sake), I would be quite happy dodging the dog-excrement that is so precariously scattered along Lade Braes and I would definitely be more up for cleaning the hefty pile of dishes that I am currently hoarding in my room. To me, it has always seemed to be a somewhat unnecessary emotion. Sure, it has some advantages in that it stops us spreading diseases through living in an unhygienic manner, but what about the level of disgust we hold for things that are physically harmless? A good example of this is the horrible task of having to pull the hair out of a blocked shower drain. The over-riding emotion one feels when having do this is disgust, but why are our brains programmed like this? In terms of evolution, there is no reason for an activity such as this to be avoided.

Disgust is an emotion that is inherent in everyone. If a baby tastes something that is very bitter, it would react in a startlingly similar way to an adult. Intriguingly, people actually have different sensitivities to disgust, which is where the emotion really starts to get interesting. A recent study, headed up by the psychologist David Pizarro, which examined the ease at which people became disgusted, produced some surprising results. It seems that if you are easily-disgusted, it is extremely likely that you are politically conservative. A study of almost 30,000 people showed a strong correlation between the political orientation and ease of disgust, even when controlled for gender, age, income, education and basic personality variables. To further compound these findings, in the 2008 USA presidential election, the states that had been found to be more easily disgusted reliably voted McCain.  Other studies have shown that this correlation has been mirrored all over the world.

The question that remains is whether this is correlation or cause? To answer this question, Simone Schnall, now at the University of Cambridge, conducted a lab based study in which certain variables were adjusted to see how they influenced people in the room. The results showed that the variables had an overwhelming affect on the decision making skills of the participants. It was found that if the participants were placed in a room where there was an unacknowledged unpleasant smell, people were more severe in their moral judgement on taboo topics such as whether it is moral for a person to eat their dead pet dog.  Interestingly, the more conservative the participant was, the harsher their judgement became.

Disgust is a very potent emotion, if a clean object touches a disgusting object, the clean item becomes disgusting and not the other way round. This makes it very good as a strategy to make a certain person or group of people seem undesirable, and politicians have taken advantage of this on numerous occasions. President Obama mentioned in his memoir that he once ate dog meat as a child, and in April, at the start of the presidential election, the Republicans made a huge effort to publicize this. Taking the idea even further, Carl Paladino of the Tea Party who was running for the for the 2010 gubernatorial election in New York state sent out thousands of malodorous flyers depicting his rivals.

Disgust is an emotion that tends to be left alone and hasn’t been studied extensively, yet the studies that have been performed have found it to be a very powerful tool of persuasion. This leads us to question its effect on a whole range of situations, most prominently the use of disgusting images and descriptions in court cases. For instance, is it possible that the level of disgust could be enough to swing a jury?


Natalie Keir


Image by Sebastian Anthony