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Politics and Maggots

Pus, maggots, vomit, feces, rotten food: in almost every human society, people share a knee-jerk revulsion for certain substances. Now, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom and his colleagues have found that the level of disgust a person feels can predict his or her political orientation. In a word: “We found that conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals.”

“Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals.”

Using a standard political orientation scale and the Disgust Sensitivity Scale—also a standard psychological measuring tool, developed in 1994 to compare individuals' reactions to such things as monkey meat, gore, and sex with animals—the researchers tested 181 adults across the country. They discovered a significant correlation between conservatism and strong feelings of being grossed out. The correlation also held among 91 Cornell undergraduates and was strongest when the political issues tested involved gay marriage or abortion. (The research appeared in June in Cognition and Emotion.)

Early in our evolution, disgust may have functioned as a way to ward us away from things that were bad to eat. Today it plays out in disagreements over policy. While Bloom finds disgust a “terribly corrosive emotion,” and wishes we could abandon it in favor of rationality, he feels there’s a risk in ignoring it. “Our findings reinforce the importance of the emotions in policy and morality. A lot of these issues are still driven by the gut.”  the end


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