Disgust Runs Deeper Amongst Conservatives

Example of an image used in the study.

Well, it’s about that time. It’s about that time to get it over with, add a twelfth category and let Nebraska into the Big Ten officially. Never mind a full season of football and a few basketball games. They weren’t officially indoctrinated into the Big Ten until they appeared here.

So let’s get to it.

It has been conjectured that the basis for all human emotion comes from the lust-disgust axis. The former obviously propagates the species while the latter helps to avoid disease and other potentially harmful situations. Indeed, it is one of the most primal human instincts. But not everyone is disgusted by the same things.

Take, for example, homosexuality. Some people are close to induced vomiting by the mere mention of anal sex, while others positively delight at the thought, even to lust at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Then, of course, there are things that are pretty much universally disgusting, like the thought of munching on a handful of live worms, horribly mutilated human bodies or Barbara Streisand.

On another topic, a growing body of research has shown that part of our ideological differences come from the way our brains are hard wired. One research study showed people falling on the right of the ideological spectrum to have relatively structured and persistent cognitive style, while those leaning left had a more open and ambiguity-tolerant style. What’s more, both of these attributes could be traced to structural differences in fMRI scans of the brain.

So if some people’s hard wiring can affect emotions as well as political leanings, can the two be intertwined? According to research from the University of Nebraska’s John Hibbing, in this case, most definitely yes.

One school of thought as to why people oppose gay marriage is that they find the thought of homosexual intercourse to be physically disgusting. Why that has any relevance so long as they don’t have to see it themselves is beyond me, but it’s still apparently a reason. And in fact, previous research has correlated people self-reporting as more susceptible to disgust as more conservative and more in opposition of gay marriage.

But people lie, or don’t know themselves very well, so Hibbing took the study a step further. He tested to see just how disgusted people really can get.

In the study, the researchers took three photos that were unanimously deemed disgusting to a high degree. One was a man eating a fistful of worms, another a piece of human poo floating in a toilet and the third a horribly mutilated but alive body. Test subjects were then shown a random series of 38 images with those three thrown in while the conductivity of their skin was measured. Sharp increases in conductivity is a clear sign of emotional response, and none of the other images were provoking in any way, unless you get worked up over a bowl of fruit or an empty room.

The results clearly showed that those with a greater response to the disgusting photos were more likely to self-identify as right-wingers. What’s more, those same people were much more likely to be opposed to gay marriage. None of the other topics polled had any sort of correlation with levels of disgust, except pre-marital sex, which was barely significant.

Of course, the 50 people in the study might not be representative of the entire country. But seeing as there was a solid mix of males, females, young, old, poor and middle-class, it could be seen as rather telling. Politically conservative folk are hard-wired to be more disgusted by disturbing thoughts and images, which seems to translate into opposition of gay marriage.


About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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