That’s Disgusting!

Many of my political positions are based primarily on disgust. Gay marriage, for instance, I find disgusting. I don’t find gays qua gays disgusting, but when they push homosexuality in my face, when they insist on publicly celebrating it and seeking everyone to join in, I feel disgusted.

There are many acts, sexual and otherwise, that disgust me and when they are pushed in my face and I am asked to celebrate them, my stomach twists and I revolt.

Now I can come up with rational sounding arguments for my positions, but down deep, they are based on disgust. They are part of my wiring.

I remember that during the three years I was on the left, ages 19-22, I experienced life differently. I had fewer fears about catastrophe and I was more open to new ways of doing things.

Leftists and rights not only see the world differently, they experience the world differently.

I find meat, particularly pork and shellfish, disgusting because I was raised a vegetarian, have been one all of my life, and am now a convert to Orthodox Judaism, which abhors pork, etc.

I find tattoos and piercings disgusting. I find celebrations of ripping off the wider society (theft, cheating on taxes, customs, etc) disgusting. I find taking welfare disgusting. I find affirmative action disgusting. I find messy rooms and filth disgusting.

The new book, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences, notes:

Conservatives are more likely to emphasize purity and disgust as a foundation for moral and political orientations. Researchers have known for some time that self-reported disgust sensitivity, not to mention the kinds of things found to be socially or morally disgusting, are related to political beliefs such that those who reported higher disgust sensitivity are more likely to adopt conservative positions, especially on sex-related issues like gay marriage…

If you need examples of people’s physiology affecting their attitudes and behavior even when they think they are being rational, consider that job applicant resumes viewed on heavy clipboards are generally judged to be more worthy than identical resumes on lighter clipboards; that holding a warm or hot drink can influence whether opinions of other people are positive or negative; and that when people reach out to pick up an orange while smelling strawberries they unwittingly spread their fingers less widely– as if they were picking up a strawberry rather than an orange. People sitting in a messy, smelly room tend to make harsher moral judgments than those who are in a neutral room; disgusting ambient odors also increase expressed dislike of gays.

Individuals being sentenced by a judge should hope it is right after a rest break rather than after several cases have been heard because judges’ sentencing practices are measurably more lenient when they are fresh. Sitting on a hatred uncomfortable chair leads people to be less flexible in their stances than if they are seated on a soft, comfortable chair, and people reminded of physical cleansing, perhaps by being located near a hand sanitizer, are more likely to render stern judgments than those who were not given such a reminder. People can even be made to change their moral judgments as a result of hypnotic suggestion.

In all these cases the baloney generator can produce a convincing case that the pertinent decision was made on the merits rather than as a result of irrelevant factors.

People actively deny that a chunky clipboard has anything to do with their assessment of job applicants or that a funky pong has anything to do with their moral judgments. Judges certainly refuse to believe that the length of time since their last break has anything to do with their sentencing decisions: after all, they are distributing objective justice. Leibniz had it right, though, and the baloney generator is full of it. The way we respond– biologically, physiologically, unconsciously, and in many cases unwittingly– to our environments influences attitudes and behavior. People don’t like to hear that since they much prefer to believe their decisions and opinions are rational rather than rationalized.

This desire to believe we are rational is certainly the case when it comes to the arena of politics where an unwillingness to acknowledge the role of extraneous and possibly subconscious forces is especially strong. Many pretend that politics is a product of citizens taking their civic obligations seriously, sifting through political messages and information, and then carefully and deliberately considering the candidates and issue positions before making a consciously informed decision. Doubtful. In truth, people’s political judgments are affected by all kinds of factors they assume to be wholly irrelevant.

…Responses to political stimuli are animated by emotional and not-always-conscious bodily processes. Political scientist Milt Lodge studies “hot cognition” or “automaticity.” His research shows that people tag familiar objects and concepts with an emotional response and that political stimuli such as a picture of Sarah Palin or the word “Obamacare” are particularly likely to generate emotional, or affective (and therefore physiologically detectable) responses. In fact, Lodge and his colleague Charles Taber claim that “all political leaders, groups, issues, symbols, and ideas previously thought about and evaluated in the past become affectively charged—positively or negatively.” Responses to a range of individual concepts and objects frequently become integrated in a network that can be thought of as the tangible manifestation of a broader political ideology.

The fact that extraneous, sub-threshold forces shape political orientations and actions makes it possible for individual variation in non-political variables to affect politics. If hotter ambient temperatures in a room increase acceptance of global warming, maybe people whose internal thermostats incline them to feeling hot are also more likely to be accepting of global warming. Likewise, sensitivity to clutter and disorder, to smell, to disgust, to threats all become potentially relevant to political views. Since elements of these sensitivities are outside of conscious awareness, it becomes possible that political views are shaped by psychological and physiological patterns.

…buried in many people and operating largely outside the realm of conscious thought are forces inclining us toward liberal or conservative political convictions. Our biology predisposes us to see and understand the world in different ways, not always reason and the careful consideration of facts. These predispositions are in turn responsible for a significant portion of the political and ideological conflict that marks human history.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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