Gay Marriage and the Political Psychology of Disgust

Why is it that some react to the LGBT community with the same emotions we use for rotting food? Scientists are starting to figure it out.

Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
July 28, 2014, 1 a.m.

When Mi­chael Sam kissed his boy­friend on tele­vi­sion to cel­eb­rate his suc­cess­ful draft in­to the NFL, some view­ers were dis­gus­ted. The charged com­ments that fol­lowed demon­strated that when it comes to pub­lic dis­plays of gay af­fec­tion, some people have a gut re­ac­tion to re­coil. But why?

The an­swer to that ques­tion is not fully known, but sci­ent­ists are be­gin­ning to es­tab­lish an un­der­stand­ing of how bio­logy and the en­vir­on­ment may in­ter­act to form such re­ac­tions. 

First, it’s im­port­ant to un­der­stand that dis­gust in hu­mans can be good. We should re­coil from the truly gross things that can harm us—fes­ter­ing wounds, ran­cid meat, and fe­ces, to name a few ex­amples, are dan­ger­ous in­cub­at­ors of in­fec­tion. “Dis­gust is a part of what is re­ferred to as the be­ha­vi­or­al im­mune sys­tem, which pro­tects us from deal­ing with items and in­di­vidu­als that might make us sick, that might kill us,” says Patrick Stew­art, a polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist at the Uni­versity of Arkan­sas (and not of X-Men, Star Trek fame).

But it’s not ad­apt­ive when healthy groups of people are re­acted to in the ex­act same way as if they were patho­gens. 

Here’s the state of the sci­ence of dis­gust right now. Con­ser­vat­ives are thought to have a great­er propensity to be dis­gus­ted than lib­er­als do. Many stud­ies cor­rob­or­ate this idea (see here, here, and here). One il­lus­trat­ive study in 2011 found that people who were more physiolo­gic­ally dis­gus­ted, a re­ac­tion that was meas­ured by skin re­ac­tions, by this photo of a man eat­ing a mouth­ful of worms were also more likely to self-identi­fy as con­ser­vat­ive. They were also more likely to have a neg­at­ive re­sponse to gay mar­riage.

Dis­gust re­ac­tions against gays are then cor­rel­ated with neg­at­ive at­ti­tudes to­ward same-sex mar­riage. That isn’t to say that con­ser­vat­ives are less tol­er­ant of or hard­wired to dis­like gays. “I think the best way of look­ing at this is con­ser­vat­ives are wired to be a little more eas­ily dis­gus­ted and fear­ful,” Stew­art says. “They are a little bit more wired to de­fens­ive­ness in their en­vir­on­ment.” This is par­tic­u­larly ap­par­ent for sexu­al is­sues—not just gay mar­riage but for top­ics like por­no­graphy as well.

But Stew­art has also found that even lib­er­al minds har­bor these im­pli­cit as­so­ci­ations.

In a re­cently pub­lished ex­per­i­ment, Stew­art and his col­leagues demon­strated that the pres­ence of a dis­gust­ing odor de­creased sup­port of gay mar­riage. Ran­dom samples were sor­ted in­to either in­to an odor group (the re­search­ers ad­ded a vomit-like smell to a room) or con­trol groups (no odor). The par­ti­cipants were then asked about their feel­ings on an ar­ray of so­cial and polit­ic­al is­sues. The res­ults are clear: In the dis­gust con­di­tion “par­ti­cipants ex­posed to the smell … re­por­ted in­creased sub­ject­ive dis­gust and more polit­ic­ally con­ser­vat­ive at­ti­tudes con­cern­ing gay mar­riage, pre­marit­al sex, por­no­graphy, and Bib­lic­al truth.” The dis­gust­ing odor had no im­pact on opin­ions on non­sexu­al polit­ic­al mat­ters, such as tax cuts or im­mig­ra­tion.

Those res­ults are a bit of a head scratch­er—how can an odor change a per­son’s polit­ic­al be­liefs? It’s best to think of it like this: The dis­gust­ing smell tem­por­ary made the lib­er­al minds more con­ser­vat­ive, shif­ted the lib­er­al minds to the right. In that more con­ser­vat­ive state, the par­ti­cipants re­acted more con­ser­vat­ively to gay mar­riage. It’s a res­ult that con­firms the com­plex­ity of the is­sue. “What we we’re find­ing here is that the en­vir­on­ment plays a huge role,” Stew­art says.

To gain a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of this com­plic­ated and still-emer­ging sci­ence, I called Kev­in B. Smith, a psy­cho­logy pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Neb­raska (Lin­coln). Smith is a fre­quently cited re­search­er on this top­ic and is the coau­thor of Pre­dis­posed: Lib­er­als, Con­ser­vat­ives, and the Bio­logy of Polit­ic­al Dif­fer­ence. Be­low is an ed­ited tran­script of our con­ver­sa­tion.

In terms of bio­logy and psy­cho­logy, is the dis­gust one feels to­ward something ob­ject­ively gross—like vomit—the same dis­gust that people might feel to­ward gay people? Is it the same emo­tion?

In terms of how you ex­per­i­ence it bio­lo­gic­ally and psy­cho­lo­gic­ally? Yes. When we hook people up to psy­cho-physiolo­gic­al equip­ment, how they ex­per­i­ence dis­gust in terms of ac­tiv­a­tion of their sym­path­et­ic nervous sys­tem or what have you, it’s very very sim­il­ar.

How would you cat­egor­ize, or how would you define, the link between con­ser­vat­ism and dis­gust?

Well, I’m not sure if it is a link from con­ser­vat­ism per se. I think it’s a link between dis­gust and at­ti­tudes. Most of the re­search points to­wards at­ti­tudes on sex-re­lated policies: gay mar­riage, abor­tions, pre­marit­al sex, sex edu­ca­tion in schools—those sorts of things. [Though, these at­ti­tudes are used to define people labeled “con­ser­vat­ive.”]

One of the things we know is that dis­gust is a primary emo­tion, and its evolved pur­pose is to stop hu­mans from in­gest­ing patho­gens. Stuff that dis­gusts us, we don’t eat and we avoid and that helps keep us healthy. And as part of our evol­u­tion that mech­an­ism seemed to get ad­op­ted for so­cial pur­poses.

The only hon­est an­swer, I think, to your broad ques­tion is, we’re not really sure. But one of the ways that this plays out is that people who have these strong dis­gust re­ac­tions tend to be in fa­vor of tight­er so­cial reg­u­la­tions of sexu­al re­la­tions.

So what’s the lar­ger goal of the re­search?

We’re try­ing to fig­ure out where ideo­logy comes from. Why are some people lib­er­als, why are some people con­ser­vat­ives? And ul­ti­mately, why are so people so at­tached to their ideo­logy that they be­lieve in it so much they will go to ex­treme lengths to sup­port what is es­sen­tially an ab­stract be­lief sys­tem, up to and in­clud­ing vi­ol­ence?

Tra­di­tion­ally the an­swer to that has been from the en­vir­on­ment, from ex­per­i­ence. You know, mom and dad taught me at the table. You come from a good fam­ily of lib­er­als, you’re raised in a par­tic­u­lar cul­ture. It’s your sur­round­ing en­vir­on­ment. In oth­er words, we come in­to the world as polit­ic­al blank slates and pick up our ideo­logy from our ex­per­i­ences as we go through life.

How could genes be con­nec­ted to wheth­er you are in fa­vor of gay mar­riage or not? There’s a big, long caus­al chain—there has to be—between your genes and your stance on the is­sue of the day. And a lot of what we are try­ing to do is to fig­ure that out.

At this point what we be­lieve is not that you have a gene for [be­ing against] gay mar­riage or any­thing like that. But what you have is your brain, your cent­ral nervous sys­tem and your peri­pher­al nervous sys­tem. These are in­form­a­tion pro­cessing sys­tems. Your genes build those in­form­a­tion pro­cessing sys­tems and they make them more sens­it­ive to cer­tain en­vir­on­ment­al stim­uli and less re­spons­ive to oth­er en­vir­on­ment­al stim­uli and that af­fects your at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors.

Is there any the­ory of why hu­mans can come to be seen as patho­gens?

That is a huge ques­tion and I think the only hon­est an­swer to that right now is we don’t know. But there are the­or­ies out there. The big one is that this mech­an­ism evolved to help us avoid patho­gens were ad­op­ted to help us avoid so­cial things that we don’t like.

So could we de­crease the power of dis­gust in our in­ter­ac­tions with one an­oth­er?

We are at very early stages now. Right now we’ve got re­search that has come out over the past few years that sug­gests A: That a cor­rel­a­tion between dis­gust and polit­ic­al at­ti­tudes ex­ists, and B: It can be ma­nip­u­lated.

The ques­tion of wheth­er the in­form­a­tion that we can glean there could be used to al­ter at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors one way or an­oth­er … that’s at the very bleed­ing edge. One of the things we think is that when people re­cog­nize a cer­tain set of at­ti­tudes and be­ha­vi­ors are anchored in bio­logy and not just the en­vir­on­ment, people are more tol­er­ant of dif­fer­ences. So that’s kind of like a spec­u­lat­ive ar­gu­ment at this point. But we are start­ing to get some em­pir­ic­al evid­ence that is in­deed the case.

If I think you are gay be­cause you made a life­style choice, I’m less tol­er­ant of you. That dis­gus­ted re­ac­tion that I have is “I know deep down in my gut it’s wrong, that you shouldn’t be do­ing that.” But if I be­lieve that sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion is in­nate, I am much more tol­er­ant of that re­gard­less of what my re­flex­ive emo­tion­al re­sponse is.

What are the find­ings that the field has a good con­sensus on?

The dis­gust dif­fer­ences are cer­tainly a con­sensus. There’s an emer­ging con­sensus that brain ac­tiv­a­tion pat­terns can re­li­ably dis­tin­guish between lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives. I think there’s an emer­ging con­sensus that lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives pro­cess in­form­a­tion dif­fer­ently, that they pay at­ten­tion to dif­fer­ent things in their en­vir­on­ment. I think that you can pick up physiolo­gic­al dif­fer­ences in lib­er­als and con­ser­vat­ives, their flight-or-flight sys­tems re­act dif­fer­ently to par­tic­u­lar stim­uli. And all of these things I’ve men­tioned, they are not based on single stud­ies, they are stud­ies based on teams around the world us­ing dif­fer­ent meth­od­o­lo­gies and they all seem to tri­an­gu­late sim­il­ar con­clu­sions.

What are the wrong con­clu­sions people some­times draw from this line of re­search?

The big one is de­term­in­ism, which drives us all nuts. We’ve had people write about our re­search and say, “There’s a con­ser­vat­ive gene,” or “Con­ser­vat­ives are more afraid,” or “Lib­er­als don’t pay at­ten­tion to danger.” And we are very, very wary of these de­term­in­ist­ic ab­so­lutes be­cause the data don’t sup­port it and noth­ing in our re­search sug­gests it.

One of the things we try to make really clear in the re­search that we do: Noth­ing that we have found sug­gests in the slight­est that bio­logy is de­term­in­ist­ic. In oth­er words, that just be­cause you have this dis­gust re­ac­tion doesn’t mean you are go­ing to go one way or the oth­er. What it does is pushes the prob­ab­il­it­ies one way or the oth­er. That seems like a subtle dif­fer­ence but it is a big dif­fer­ence.

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