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The political anatomy of disgust

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This is really interesting:

In the mid-2000s, a political scientist approached the neuroscientist Read Montague with a radical proposal. He and his colleagues had evidence, he said, that political orientation might be partly inherited, and might be revealed by our physiological reactivity to threats. To test their theory, they wanted Montague, who heads the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech, to scan the brains of subjects as they looked at a variety of images—including ones displaying potential contaminants such as mutilated animals, filthy toilets, and faces covered with sores—to see whether neural responses showed any correlation with political ideology. Was he interested?

Montague initially laughed at the idea—for one thing, MRI research requires considerable time and resources—but the team returned with studies to argue their case, and eventually he signed on. When the data began rolling in, any skepticism about the project quickly dissolved. The subjects, 83 in total, were first shown a randomized mixture of neutral and emotionally evocative pictures—this second category contained both positive and negative images—while undergoing brain scans. Then they filled out a questionnaire seeking their views on hot-button political and social issues, in order to classify their general outlook on a spectrum from extremely liberal to extremely conservative. 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.

There’s apparently a rapidly growing literature concluding that the relative propensity of people to feel disgust is a strong predictor of whether they will be conservative or liberal.

Disgust is a powerful and primitive emotion, which bypasses higher cognitive function altogether:

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.

The biological function of disgust is to protect against dangers of contamination, which were obviously enormous in premodern times.  People feel disgust, in other words, when at some pre-conscious level they sense that something is dirty and could make them dirty as a result.

The connection to political ideology is this: people who have relatively high levels of concern about contamination are more likely to be conservative than otherwise.  And concerns about contamination are strongly connected to concerns about otherness, deviance, invasion of the body politic, etc.

This is an idea that makes all sorts of intuitive sense, and it’s striking the extent to which that idea is now being supported by psychological studies in many countries (Of course all the caveats about how difficult this kind of work is to replicate apply).

A lot of right wing ideology seems driven by a literally visceral fear of being contaminated by dirty others: racial minorities,  foreigners, sexual and gender deviants, and so forth.

This may even be reflected in matters of literal taste: people who are very sensitive to strong flavors are more likely to be conservative.  (I’m reminded of Levi-Strauss’s story of how the American troops moving through France fired flamethrowers into the caves where Roquefort Camembert cheese was being stored because they thought those caves contained rotting corpses).

I’m also struck by how I’ve often seen progressives transform into raving reactionaries in situations where feelings of visceral disgust are triggered in them: for example when discussing fat bodies, which in contemporary American culture tend to elicit strong feelings of disgust even in otherwise relatively tolerant people.

Anyway, there’s obviously a lot more work to be done on this, especially in regard to how disgust can be manipulated for political purposes, as our own political moment illustrates all too well.

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