The Brain’s Response to Disgust Predicts Political Leanings

United States capitol building in autumnToday is Election Day, and many Americans have been getting a hefty dose of political advertisements for weeks—and in some cases, even months. If you’re like many voters, you’ve probably been disgusted by some of these ads, or perhaps you even find the candidates themselves disgusting. According to a new study published in Current Biology, disgust actually plays a key role in political orientations, and the way you respond to disgusting stimuli can help predict your political views.

Disgust Responses Stronger among Conservatives

Researchers showed study participants a number of images designed to provoke a reaction of disgust, such as dirty toilets, as well as a host of more pleasant images of babies and landscapes. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers were able to see how a participant’s brain reacted to the images. Specific neural pathways correlate with feelings of disgust, making it possible for researchers to identify when a participant felt disgusted, even when he or she denied those feelings.

Researchers then administered a political ideology inventory, during which participants answered questions about divisive political issues such as gay marriage. People who had shown pronounced disgust responses were more likely to identify with conservative political positions. The correlation was so strong, in fact, that based solely on fMRI scans, researchers were able to predict with 95% to 98% accuracy how participants would answer various political questions.

How Disgust Affects Behavior

Researchers don’t yet know why conservatives tend to be more easily disgusted than liberals, but some political research points to the effects of this personality trait. A study recently covered by GoodTherapy.org polled voters about their political ideologies and attitudes. While the study didn’t directly measure disgust, its results do support the theory that conservatives are more prone to disgust than liberals. Thirty-six percent of Republicans, for example, feel that Democrats threaten our nation’s well-being, while only 27% of Democrats view Republicans as a threat. Half of conservatives prefer to live somewhere where people share their political views, compared to only 35% of liberals, and 17% of Republicans report that they’d be extremely unhappy if a family member married a Democrat, but only 7% of Democrats would be troubled by having a Republican marry into the family, suggesting that perhaps conservatives are more easily disgusted by people with different beliefs than liberals might be.

References:

  1. Liberal or conservative? Brain responses to disgusting images help reveal political leanings. (2014, November 3). Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/284768.php
  2. Political polarization and personal life. (2014, June 12). Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2014/06/12/section-3-political-polarization-and-personal-life/

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  • Jeb

    Jeb

    November 4th, 2014 at 10:03 AM

    Maybe it is that those who are more liberal see the squalor but want to do something about it rather than shying away from it and not wanting to have anything to do with it? I know, that is a stretch but it’s something to ponder.

  • Sydney

    Sydney

    November 4th, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    How odd this is to me! That something that is so basic could actually predict which way that you lean politically! I would love to see a larger study along these lines, maybe even at exit polls or something, so that we could see if this is something that is pretty much universally true or if it was just a little quirk in the numbers. Fascinating.

  • graham

    graham

    November 5th, 2014 at 10:41 AM

    I really am quite surprised with the findings in that people always say that liberals are far more sensitive therefore I would have thought that it would be the left leaning folks finding more disgust in certain things than do the conservatives. I suppose this is why I am not some huge political junkie, but just from everything that you read I would have assumed that the disgust level would have been evidenced more often in the liberal bent of society.

  • Peggy

    Peggy

    November 6th, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    I know that this is true. What is perceived as disgusting also varies. When we work a polling location it is important for the candidates sake that the volunteer not turn off a voter. Placing non threatening volunteers that show no tattoos or metal or scruffy jeans at polling places where old conservatives vote is important. And I’m wondering if some of the class conscious younger ones might react similarly. And it is true that liberals accept the poor and the homeless knowing that we are a car accident or a poor decision away from being just like them. And we know that wealth is nice but not necessary to prove one’s value as a human.

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