The Politics of Being Grossed Out

If you’re living in the United States right now, politics is arguably something unavoidable and yet, best ignored. Despite the fact that politics, politicians, and policies should be working toward a better world for all of us, partisan division and bad actors have likely driven us to feel otherwise; it should be no surprise that, in the words of the Pew Research Center, “public trust in government near historic lows.” But regardless of how we may feel about politics and government generally, we still have beliefs and ideologies individual to ourselves, and it does make some sense to get a better idea of what motivates those beliefs. To that end, there is a litany of political quizzes one can take online that purport to identify how we align ourselves on the political spectrum. Most of them — take this or this for example — ask us to respond to various political issues of the day. 

But there may be a better way.

Perhaps we should just look at pictures of dog poop and festering wounds.

If that sounds gross, well, that’s the point. Being repulsed by something is a feature, not a bug, of survival. If you see a bunch of maggots attacking some food on the ground, you may be disgusted enough to not eat the food, even if you’re otherwise starving — and that may be the right response, as the food is probably spoiled and will likely make you sick. If you see a mess on the ground want go to pick it up, the overwhelming odor that it may give off will potentially stop you from touching something dangerous. As David Pizarro, a psychologist at Cornell University, told New Scientist, “Before we had developed any theory of disease, disgust prevented us from contagion.

But when it comes to our political leanings, we tend to think of ourselves as more rational and less reactionary; our views are shaped mostly by well-reasoned arguments backed by data, right? (Right??) Sure, our upbringing and life experiences shape those views, but politics are more than a gut feeling or subconscious result to stimuli. And that’s probably true to a degree, but, as brain scans show, we probably shouldn’t discount the impact of disgust, either. The Atlantic explains:

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.

It turns out that disgust can go beyond helping us differentiate between things that are safe and those that are unsafe — it can also help attune our moral compasses, guiding our determinations of right versus wrong. Disgust, unlike many other emotional responses, can be intractable; as Pizarro told the Atlantic, “compared with anger, happiness, and sadness, he says, disgust is also “less open to change based on your judgment, your thoughts, your reasoning.” Our political views may suffer the same fate. However, what we’re disgusted by may not be as important as how likely we are to be disgusted in general; Pizarro’s subsequent research suggests that “people who reported that they were easily disgusted also reported that they were more politically conservative” and that “people who were very liberal were very hard to disgust” as he shares in his TED Talk.

If you want to read Montague et al’s paper, you can do so here. And if you want to take their test, well, you’re out of luck — as the Atlantic notes, MRI research isn’t cheap. But there’s an easier, albeit less accurate test available. In 2007, a group of psychologists led by NYU professor Jonathan Haidt developed a “disgust scale” (explained here) that can be determined via 27 rather quick and painless questions. You can take that quiz here, and I promise, while there are references to some gross things, there are no pictures included. 


Bonus fact: “Disgust” — the word, not the idea — is one of a handful of words called “lonely negatives.” The word “disgust” comes from the Latin word gustare, which means “taste,” with the negative prefix “dis” added; combined, the word “disgust” comes from the phrase “to have a distaste for.” The word “gust,” therefore, should mean “to enjoy the taste of” or something like that, but “gust” isn’t an English word; we’ve adopted the negative but not the positive parallel term. Mental Floss shares a dozen such lonely negatives, including “disgust,” “reckless,” “inscrutable,” and “disappoint.” (Yes, “appoint” is a word, but it doesn’t mean the opposite of “disappoint.)

From the Archives: The Gross, Metallic Secret Behind America’s Westward Expansion: Poop.