Thursday, October 27, 2011

The "ick" factor and conservative politics

These days, thinking about conservative politics gives me a strong sense of disgust. But it turns out that our sense of revulsion at disturbing images is linked to our political viewpoints quite viscerally. From LIveScience:
Most people would likely avert their eyes when passing by a man with a mouth full of writhing worms, or, say, the sight of a pile of excrement. But some are more disgusted than others, and new research suggests those individuals who respond with a more intense "yuck" are more likely to hold conservative political views and specifically are more likely to oppose same-sex marriage.
Now, we knew some of this already. But a new study looks even more closely.
For the study, Smith, UNL political scientist John Hibbing and their colleagues selected 50 individuals from a random sample ...As the participants looked at a series of 38 images that ranged from pleasant to unpleasant, their skin conductance was measured, which is a gauge of the level of activation of the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that activates the automatic "fight or flight" response in surprising situations....

The participants also answered questions to gauge their political views. The results showed, as predicted, that those who indicated conservative political views responded to the icky pictures with much more intense disgust than did liberals....

Scientists think some level of disgust sensitivity is "normal," and helps us along with our human ancestors avoid disease. "The role of disgust in the avoidance of disease, one of the primary sources of mortality over the centuries, makes it essential to survival," the researchers write this month in the online journal PLoS ONE.

But what does this disease-avoidance system have to do with political views?

"I think that one plausible explanation is sort of along the lines that one way to understand some of these attitudes about politics and morality is that they have a strong emotional component," Pizarro told LiveScience in a telephone interview. Different emotions are linked with different kinds of judgments and behavior, he added. For instance, fear is linked to vigilance and preparedness, he said, while disgust is linked to steering clear of any sort of contamination, "foreign looking" things, or possibly even strange people.

As such, people who are more easily disgusted may be more likely to take on political views that help them avoid these "disgusting" situations.

"Sex, with its exchange of bodily fluids and all that can be viewed as disgusting," Hibbing told LiveScience in an email. "And this appears to be particularly true for homosexual sex [and] in fact this response is often described as the 'ick' factor. So the long-standing hypothesis that variations in disgust would be correlated with policy stances related to sexuality and homosexuality seems to follow naturally from this."
This doesn't explain why conservatives who are opposed to LGBT equality are so often obsessed with the "mechanics" of gay sex. I'm sure I don't have to remind you of the graphic descriptions of certain sexual acts that conservatives seem to relish describing.

Still, what it suggests is that conservativism and anti-gay attitudes are to some extent biological. Well, to some extent EVERYTHING is biological. But what distinguishes us from the beasts is that we have an intellect that can overcome the raw biological instincts with reason.

Although, it would appear that some conservatives are more limited in that department.


JCF said...

We had a biological problem: rotting teeth.

So, we implemented a biological solution: flouride in the water.

Now, some paranoid types objected---but government leaders, knowing better, did it anyway.

Can we not treat conservatism (i.e., pathological FEAR) the same way? A biological problem, to be appropriately treated (when a biological remedy is---please dear God!---found?)

[I know, I know: politically, we can't. And ironically, the paranoid (aka "conservative") types can, today, buy non-flouridated bottled water! :-X]

Paul said...

But what distinguishes us from the beasts is that we have an intellect that can overcome the raw biological instincts with reason.

I like that. There are lots of icky things we have to deal with. Open heart surgery. Root canals. Changing a diaper. It's all part of life. Deal with it.

What is not acceptable is moving from "ick" to a moral judgement. non sequitur.