So today we are talking about disgust…

This is from yesterday’s Discovery on the BBC World Service, a documentary by Claudia Hammond on disgust – its natural purpose in helping us to steer clear of disease risks, how we learn disgust, its possible role in moral judgment, and even a possible link between disgust sensitivity and political opinions. I decided to split my response to this very interesting piece into two posts (see Part 1 here) because the types of disgust I wanted to talk about naturally fall into two camps – the physical or “basic” disgust response to perceived disease risks and the moral or social disgust response to people or actions of which we strongly disapprove.

There is by all accounts some fairly plausible evidence that disgust is not just an emotional but also a physical reaction: we don’t just feel mentally or emotionally repelled, we feel physically repelled. Well, duh. When the idea of touching something makes you want to vomit, or makes your insides literally and physically clench – that’s physical. But there are other, measurable physiological effects as well, including a slowing of the heart rate and activity in a specific part of the brain. This is quite different from other possible reactions such as fear or anger, where the heart rate increases and different parts of the brain are involved.

Consequently, it is possible to analyse what images, sounds or experiences evoke disgust in a subject who is wired up to a heart rate monitor or brain scanner.

Studies have been done to see whether the moral judgement of “disgusting” (such as we might feel for, say, Richard Littlejohn) is merely metaphorical or whether it really does involve the physiological form of disgust. Some studies showed a clear link, in that when people were shown things that they found to be morally “disgusting” they really did exhibit the physiological symptoms of disgust.

Interestingly, where the disgust related to images of people – homeless people or drug addicts evoked disgust in many subjects – the symptoms of disgust were associated with something rather disquieting. There is a part of the brain that reacts when a person is looking at another human being. The “disgusting” people did not cause that reaction – in the minds of the person who was disgusted by them, they were not really seen as people at all. Less than human.

Other studies have been done suggesting a plausible link between disgust sensitivity and political opinions. People were tested on how disgusted they were by a range of possible disgust triggers, and were then asked about their political views on a range of issues. It turns out that people who scored high on disgust were also more likely to have conservative / rightwing opinions on a range of political issues including such seemingly neutral issues as tax rates.

The interviewee speculated that this connection was based on or stemmed from sexual disgust. People who were sensitive to disgust were more likely to feel (morally?) disgusted by sexual acts that they did not personally enjoy and therefore more likely to align themselves with people (in groups including political groups) who shared that disgust – and then to pick up political opinions on unrelated issues simply because they have mixed with those people.

To my mind that whole idea is rather circular – why is a shared disgust for certain sexual practices related in the first place with conservative or rightwing views on tax or foreign policy? On this basis, the coincidence of disgust and rightwing politics might just as easily work the other way around: maybe people who come together to talk about tax or foreign policy influence each other’s disgust sensitivity. That is, people who like to pay the minimum taxes necessary to bomb the crap out of brown people might influence one another to be disgusted by homosexual acts; while people who don’t mind paying more taxes if it means we can have decent schools and hospitals and a humane foreign policy might influence one another to believe that whatever you want, man, that’s cool. But why would they? We could go round like this for ages.

As usual, I have my own theory, which seems to make a lot more sense.

People who are more easily disgusted by, say, bowls of sick or hairy warts, are certainly more likely to be disgusted by obviously physical things like sex acts they don’t like the sound of, or by the idea of someone injecting drugs into their body, or by images of an aborted foetus. But as research suggests, they may also be more easily disgusted by other people, and more likely to view other people as not really human.

Consequently, they will be less likely to care if lower taxes mean more hardship for those already living in poverty; they will be less likely to worry if an aggressive foreign policy means that brown people will suffer or die; they will be less likely to view certain people (women, brown people, disabled people, gay people, poor people, the drug-addicted, criminals, fat people, vagrants and basically anyone not like them) as fully deserving of the same basic rights and standard of living that people like them take for granted.

And you know what’s really disgusting?
The idea that people who are not like you are not people.