Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Jun/09

7

Conservatism as disposition; the politcs of disgust

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There are a series of papers out right now which show the positive relationship between political conservatism and reflexive disgust responses. Instead of summarizing the research myself I will point you to Observations of a Nerd, who does a really good job. The only caution I would add is that the post has a rather disgusting illustration of a toilet, so it seems possible that the author is skewing the readership toward liberals who are more likely to be able to overcome their revulsion!

In any case, as with most psychological models this is a complex one with many shades of gray. For example, it seems likely that human aversion to the odor of rotting meat and bodily waste is reflexive and innate in a very deep sense. There doesn’t need to be a very suble adaptive explanation for this since the risks of consuming bad meat are rather high (I have read that the majority of the mild illneses experience in our lives are probably due to food poisoning!). On the other hand aversions to specific foods, such as taboos against consumption of certain types of meat, are learned behaviors which tend to crystalize during one’s pre-teen years. Though an aversion to dog or pig meat is not hardwired, proximately the way people respond to these is not learned, but rather a co-option of innate disgust responses which are primed by cultural norms toward specific stimuli.

There is human variation in this. We all know that some people are picky eaters while others are adventurous. This generalizes to many aspects of life in terms of openness to the novel and new. Not surprisingly one of the most significant correlates of political liberalism within the population is openness to the novel and new. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt has constructed a model to explain the emergence of political worldviews out of lower level moral dispositions, and naturally these moral dispositions themselves probably emerge from even lower psychological biases.

What is the moral, so to speak, of these research projects? One implication is that much political talk (though not all) about the axioms which drive our orientations are simply plausible stories which our conscious pre-frontal cortex generates as a “reasonable” facade on top of deeper emotionally driven commitments. The model that politics derives from explicit principles, as opposed to intuitive dispositions, naturally results in attempts of reasoned “dialogue.” But talking may ultimately be as futile as a discussion about why two individuals differ in their preference for the taste of watermelon.

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12 comments

  • Author comment by Steel Phoenix · June 7, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    “But talking may ultimately be as futile as a discussion about why two individuals differ in their preference for the taste of watermelon.”

    This would have been a great last post for the site.

    I’ve heard that babies dislike strong flavored foods as an anti-poison response. I wonder how much these experiences may affect their tastes later in life. Could feeding a baby sauerkraut make them conservative?

  • Ploni · June 7, 2009 at 11:17 pm

    Nothing new about “ideology is superstructure” (or, here, “facade”). Not to discount these studies, but as usual the tendency is to over-hype. These studies, at best, explain a little bit about political opinions at a given snapshot of time and place. How many people found homosexuality disgusting forty years ago? How many today?

    You can indeed dramatically change people’s minds about politics. And I do mean dramatically: all you need is television and movie studios, writers, producers and actors, magazines, editors, and journalists – and don’t forget the professors to educate all those people – and, yes, you too can shape public opinion. You can shape it over time, in a process that’s of course invisible to these snapshot correlation studies.

  • Author comment by David Hume · June 8, 2009 at 12:17 am

    These studies, at best, explain a little bit about political opinions at a given snapshot of time and place. How many people found homosexuality disgusting forty years ago? How many today?

    that is totally predictable from these studies. you don’t understand them well if you think your argument here is novel or a strike against them. tiresome.

  • Caledonian · June 8, 2009 at 10:05 am

    I am disappointed that so much discussion takes place about how modern ‘conservatives’ have a strong disgust/rejection reaction, and so little about whether disgust is a valid political response, the differences in what people are conceptually disgusted by and why, and which things we should try to abolish or encourage disgust towards.

  • Ploni · June 8, 2009 at 10:10 am

    @David Hume

    David Hume :

    David Hume

    that is totally predictable from these studies.

    I don’t understand the studies well, apparently, because I just read the summary you linked to, and maybe I didn’t even read that carefully enough. How do these studies predict that Americans and Western Europeans – but not other peoples – would be a lot less disgusted by homosexuality in 2009 than in 1969? I’m honestly interested in knowing how I misunderstood this, because I still don’t see how the studies predict it. You’ve probably explained it lots of times already, but thanks in advance if you feel like explaining it again.

  • John · June 8, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    The problem with a lot of studies showing “Conservatives are less rational”, or “Conservatives have lower IQs”, ect, are that the people conducting the studies misdefine what a conservative is. Instead of using the fusionist definition of a conservative as one who believes in free markets, a strong military, and traditional social values, a lot of psychologists (who are mostly on the left) focus only on social conservatism.

    I can believe that people who are against gay marriage are that way partially because of feelings of disgust. I have a much harder time believing this of people who are against the minimum wage or who favor missle defence programs.

  • benito · June 8, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    John :

    John
    I have a much harder time believing this of people who are against the minimum wage or who favor missle defence programs.

    John, check out this survey:
    http://www.zogby.com/blog2/index.php/2009/06/01/facts-or-values/

    I would like Mr. Hume to blog about it.

  • John · June 9, 2009 at 7:25 am

    Interesting, benito

  • Chris · June 9, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    The problem with a lot of studies showing “Conservatives are less rational”, or “Conservatives have lower IQs”, ect, are that the people conducting the studies misdefine what a conservative is.

    Considering even conservatives can’t agree on what a conservative is, “misdefine” is a bit of a strong word for “define it differently than I would prefer to”.

    How can a definition be wrong? False? Mistaken? What would that even mean? Truth and falsehood can only be evaluated with respect to a given set of definitions.

    But talking may ultimately be as futile as a discussion about why two individuals differ in their preference for the taste of watermelon.

    I don’t see how this follows. Nobody is born a beer drinker but lots of people learn it. Even subjective tastes can change over time – and that change can be influenced from outside. It just means that the form of the discourse needs to change from rational arguments (which only touch the surface) to something aimed at changing the underlying sentiments that drive political behavior – an observation that goes for both sides.

  • John · June 9, 2009 at 3:30 pm

    Chris: “How can a definition be wrong? False? Mistaken? What would that even mean? Truth and falsehood can only be evaluated with respect to a given set of definitions.”

    Words do have definitions. The definition of a word is the meaning commonly connected with it. That is how language works. If you said that the English definition of “rose” was “a metal rod used to hit a golfball”, then your definition would indeed be wrong. Not just different, but wrong.

    While there is not complete agreement on what a conservative is, most people that call themselves conservatives would certainly say that there is a lot more to it than just social conservatism. Reagan isn’t loved by conservatives only because of his views on affirmative action and flag burning.

  • Matt · June 9, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    High sensitivity to disgust significantly predicted conservative views on topics like abortion and gay marriage, a connection not explained by religious affiliation. The same was not true for other non-disgust related issues like affirmative action, labor unions or gun control.

    It doesn’t sound to me like it predicts “conservatism”, but that it predicts squick on issues that intuitively involve, uh…. bodily fluids and disease risk. I have a hard time understanding how disgust then predicts political conservatism overall, unless high disgust people get dragged onto taking other conservative stances on non-gay/abortion issues due to their disgust derived politics.

    I’d really be interested to see what actual conservative views were tested against disgust, particularly if any of them were other those which involve things were disgust is a legitimate response. What about testing stereotypically liberal but disgust related issues like GM foods or animal welfare or pollution or disgusting working conditions for the poor? I wonder if disgust would then still be as predictive of conservatism.

    (Of course, I get the central point, which is that an emotional, visceral response may drive political affiliation on particular issues, rather than rational argument which is in fact merely ex post facto justification, and that how this response is formed should be considered.)

  • Secular Right » Start at the same point, go in opposite directions · June 11, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    [...] between Cato’s Brink Lindsey and David Frum. It illustrates my point about the necessity of common assumptions to have fruitful discussions. Brink is a libertarian who has rejected fusionism and now wishes to [...]

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