News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

Why Conservatives Hate You: How Our Politics Relies on Creating Disgust for Opponents

Morality is grounded in our bodily experience. We literally feel right and wrong in our bodies. That's why disgust is such a powerful weapon in political fights.

Are you someone who struggles to understand why people behave the way they do in politics? Perhaps you've been confused by all the fervor against gay marriage. Or maybe you're taken aback by the strong emotions waged against government-sponsored health care.

To understand political behaviors like these, you'll need to become familiar with the psychology of disgust. Researchers have learned a lot about it in recent years:

  • Disgust, like all emotions, is biological and can be explained through the workings of the brain
  • Disgust is the physiological foundation for moral notions of purity and sacrilege
  • Disgust, once felt, creates a persistent association that is very difficult to get rid of
  • Disgust is a powerful motivator of behavior, helping deter us away from perceived threats to our health

So what does this have to do with politics? In a word, everything.

Politics on the Brain

If you've read the work of  George LakoffDrew Westen or  Jonathan Haidt you know there's quite a buzz in the academic world around recent discoveries into the political mind. Distinct  moral worldviews have been systematically explored. Profound biases have been demonstrated in the ways  brains process information depending on whether the person identifies as a liberal or conservative. And distinct  moral sensitivities have been found across different political groups that correspond with key social emotions.

As I argued in  a recent article, the understandings coming out of this research are critical for cultivating a political culture that is conducive to participatory democracy. This is especially true for the emotion of disgust.

Emotions are physical. They are complex processes that occur in our brains, each serving vital purposes for our survival. Disgust in particular is the result of our bodily need to avoid toxic substances, especially rotten and poisonous foods. Thus it is most closely associated with bodily functions having to do with digestion.

At its most basic level, disgust can be thought of as the unpleasantness that arises when the body is contaminated. The brain has sensors to recognize when the body has been contaminated and it uses specific chemical markers to remember events that may have lead to the unpleasantness that followed.

The Feeling of Morality

For a long time, the study of morality was relegated to the halls of our philosophy and political science departments. This has changed in a serious way. There are now a wide variety of scientific research programs dedicated to understanding the physical, biological and evolutionary foundations of morality. When Sam Harris took up this topic a few weeks ago, he barely scratched the surface of what is known today.

Research centers include the  International Institute on Cognition and Culture at the London School of Economics, the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, the  Institute on Cognition and Culture in Belfast and the Center for Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture in Vancouver, to name a few.

One of the major discoveries so far is that morality is grounded in our bodily experience. We literally feel right and wrong in our bodies. Disgust is a physical experience that applies to notions of moral purity, moral health and our judgments about how to handle situations like incest, cannibalism and rape. For each of these emotionally potent topics, the strength of our feelings corresponds directly with our sentiments about how they should be handled in society.

Research tailored to the study of moral purity and the emotion of disgust was conducted by Paul Rozin, Jonathan Haidt and Rick McCauley. (A copy of their seminal article  can be requested here.) They showed that the physical experience of disgust provides the bodily foundation for the moral concept of purity. Put succinctly, when you experience the feeling of moral disgust – via the tainting of something you hold sacred and pure – it is produced by the same neural and chemical process that arise after biting into a moldy piece of bread or some rotten fruit.

See more stories tagged with: