Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals

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COGNITION AND EMOTION 2008, 00 (00), 1?12

Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals

Yoel Inbar and David A. Pizarro

Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA

Paul Bloom


Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA

The uniquely human emotion of disgust is intimately connected to morality in

many, perhaps all, cultures (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999b). We report two

studies suggesting that a predisposition to feel disgust (``disgust sensitivity'') is

associated with more conservative political attitudes, especially for issues related to


the moral dimension of purity. In the first study, we document a positive correlation

between disgust sensitivity and self-reported conservatism in a broad sample of US

adults. In Study 2 we show that while disgust sensitivity is associated with more

conservative attitudes on a range of political issues, this relationship is strongest for purity-related issues*specifically, abortion and gay marriage.


Disgust is a peculiar emotion, readily elicited by a simple smell, sound, sight,

or even word. As Miller (1997) observed, it's difficult to even talk about disgust without becoming disgusted*the mere thought of disgust elicitors

such as maggots, pus, or putrid meat can turn one's stomach. Although

disgust may have evolved in order to discourage us from ingesting noxious or


dangerous substances, the emotion has come to play a much broader role in

our social lives. Rather than arising solely as a reaction to noxious stimuli,

disgust is also intimately involved in shaping moral perceptions of specific

groups and acts (Bloom, 2004a; Miller, 1997; Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley,



Disgust seems to be particularly implicated in many of our moral

judgements (Rozin, Lowery, Imada, & Haidt, 1999b). But should disgust

play any role in these judgements? According to many liberal, educated

Westerners, the answer is no. Whether a practice or behaviour is considered

morally palatable or reprehensible should depend on whether that behaviour

Correspondence should be addressed to: Yoel Inbar, Cornell University, Department of

Psychology, Uris Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA. E-mail:

The authors thank Zachary Burns and Shannon Crater for their help collecting data, and

Clayton Critcher, Tom Gilovich, and Jon Haidt for their comments on earlier versions of the


# 2008 Psychology Press, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an Informa business


DOI: 10.1080/02699930802110007

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harms or infringes on the rights of another individual; disgusting but

harmless behaviours do not deserve moral condemnation (Haidt, Koller, &

Dias, 1993). According to this view, consuming faecal matter, engaging in

sexual intercourse with animals, or masturbating to pornography is not

immoral, as long as no other people are harmed by one's behaviour (Bloom,



However, this view of disgusting acts as morally innocuous is a fairly

recent invention. The vast majority of cultures, past and present, have

recognised purity as an important moral dimension. Behaviours that are

seen as degrading, defiling, or unnatural reduce purity and are thus immoral


even if they do not harm oneself or others. Therefore, disgust*the emotion

most often elicited by breaches of purity*is seen as morally relevant and

informative (Rozin et al., 1999b).

This view of purity as a moral virtue, and of disgust as a morally relevant

emotion, is common even in Western democracies. A large majority of


working-class Philadelphia adults surveyed by Haidt et al. (1993) thought

that disgusting but harmless behaviours*such as buying a dead chicken,

having sex with it, and then eating it for dinner*were morally wrong.

Likewise, college undergraduates surveyed by Nichols (2002) viewed

disgusting behaviours, such as spitting in a glass of water and drinking it,


as less permissible than non-disgusting violations of convention, such as

drinking soup out of one's bowl at a dinner party.

Given the important role that disgust plays in many people's moral

judgements and beliefs, is it possible that individual differences in the

propensity to experience disgust might be associated with systematic


differences in moral ideologies? Some have argued that differing conceptions

of what classes of behaviours properly belong in the moral domain are the

fundamental cause of the heated and seemingly intractable disagreement

between political liberals and conservatives (Haidt & Graham, 2007; Lakoff,

2002). According to Haidt and Graham (2007), for instance, political


conservatives, in contrast to liberals, see the maintenance of purity as an

inherent moral good and thus regard disgust, the consequence of violations

of purity, as a morally relevant emotion.

Leon Kass, a noted conservative bioethicist, has argued for what he calls

``the wisdom of repugnance''. According to Kass, disgust at a practice such


as human cloning can be ``the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond

wisdom's power completely to articulate it'' (Kass, 2001). Similarly, self-

described conservatives surveyed by Haidt and Graham (2007) said that

whether ``someone did something disgusting'' was quite relevant to deciding

that an action was right or wrong, a view that was not shared by self-


described liberals.

These findings point to the possibility that conservatives are more likely

than liberals to experience disgust in response to specific behaviours that

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violate ideals of purity. However, in the current research, we wished to explore

whether there is a broader relationship between disgust and political


ideology*that is, whether a general disposition to feel disgusted by a variety

of stimuli, including non-social stimuli, is associated with conservatism. As

disgust seems to be an important component of the moral and political views

of many conservatives, it is plausible to suppose that a heightened general

proclivity to feel disgust might be associated with more conservative views.


For example, Kass reacts with disgust not only to controversial practices such

as human cloning, but also to more widely accepted practices, such as public

consumption of ice cream cones: ``Worst of all [. . .] are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone*a catlike activity that has

been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who


know why eating in public is offensive'' (Kass, 1994, p. 148).

Thus, we predicted that a general disposition to feel disgust in a variety of

situations would be associated with greater self-reported conservatism as

well as more conservative views on specific political issues. To measure

differences in dispositional disgust, we used the Disgust Sensitivity Scale


(DSS; Haidt, McCauley, & Rozin, 1994). The DSS assesses sensitivity to

disgust in a wide variety of domains, including core disgust (e.g., faeces,

rotting meat, bodily secretions); death, blood, and gore; and unusual sexual

practices (e.g., incest, zoophilia). Past research has demonstrated that DSS

scores are stable over time and that they predict people's willingness to


perform actual disgusting actions (Rozin, Haidt, McCauley, Dunlop, &

Ashmore, 1999a).

We obtained initial support for our hypothesis in a pilot study in which 82

UC Irvine undergraduates completed the 8-item short form of the DSS

(Haidt, 2004); a political orientation measure that asked participants to


indicate their political ideology on a bipolar scale anchored by Very Liberal

and Very Conservative; and a variety of other, unrelated questionnaires. In

this study, disgust sensitivity was positively correlated with self-reported conservatism, r(82)0.29, p0.01.



Our pilot study established an association between disgust sensitivity and

political conservatism. However, this study used a convenience sample of

university undergraduates, limiting the generality of the effect. Participants

in Study 1 were a much broader sample of US adults who varied widely in

age, income, and political and religious affiliation. This allowed us to


investigate whether the link between disgust sensitivity and conservatism is

limited to university undergraduates or whether it is also present in a more

demographically diverse sample.

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Additionally, we wished to examine whether any of our demographic

variables could explain the relationship between disgust sensitivity and


conservatism. In particular, since concerns with purity and contamination

are often important components of religious belief and practice (Shweder,

Much, Mahapatra, & Park, 1997), we wished to investigate whether

members of particular religions might be both more disgust sensitive and

more conservative, explaining the disgust sensitivity?conservatism link.



Participants were 181 US adults (99 female), who completed the study at

their convenience by logging onto an Internet web site (zoomerang.

com). Participants in this study were part of an opt-in panel of respondents

recruited by Zoomerang (an online survey service that caters to educational,


non-profit, and market research), who complete surveys regularly in

exchange for monetary compensation. In this case, participants were selected

on the basis of their geographical location (primarily from the four ``swing-

states'' in the 2004 US Presidential election).

As in the pilot study, participants completed the 8-item short form of the


DSS, which consists of two sections: In the first, participants are asked to

rate their agreement with four disgust-related statements (e.g., ``I try to avoid

letting any part of my body touch the toilet seat in a public restroom, even

when it appears clean'') on a 4-point scale anchored by ``Strongly disagree

(very untrue about me)'' and ``Strongly agree (very true about me)''. In the


second section, participants are asked to indicate how disgusting they would

find four different events (e.g., ``You take a sip of soda and then realise that

you picked up the wrong can, which a stranger had been drinking out of'')

on a 4-point scale anchored by ``Not disgusting at all'' and ``Very disgusting''.

An overall disgust sensitivity score is computed by averaging participants'


responses to the eight items, so that scores can range from 1 to 4.

Participants also completed the same measure of political orientation

used in the pilot study, as well as a number of demographic measures.


Gender. As is typical (Druschel & Sherman, 1999; Haidt et al., 1994),


women were more disgust sensitive than men, Ms02.66 and 2.45,

respectively; t(179)02.40, pB.02, d00.36. Thus, all subsequent analyses

in this study and in Study 2 include gender as a covariate. There were no

interactions involving gender in either of the studies.

Demographics. Participants were asked demographic questions on age,


income, religious affiliation, and political party membership. Sixty-seven

participants (37%) were between 25 and 49 years old; 106 (59%) were

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between 50 and 75; and 8 (4%) were older than 75. Thirty-five participants

(19%) reported incomes of under $25,000 per year; 71 (39%) reported

incomes between $25,000 and $50,000; 45 (25%) reported incomes between


$50,000 and $75,000; and 30 (17%) reported incomes over $75,000. Seventy-

five participants (41%) were Protestant; 60 (33%) were Catholic; 8 (4%) were

atheist or agnostic; 1 was Hindu; 2 were Jewish; and 35 (19%) marked

``other''. Seventy-four participants (41%) were Republicans; 57 (31%) were

Democrats; 36 (20%) were independents; and 14 (8%) marked ``other''.


There were no significant differences in disgust sensitivity by age group:

(M25?4902.59, M50?7502.54, M76'02.70), F(2, 177)00.26, p0.77, h20.003; or income (MB$25K02.48, M$25K?$50K02.64, M$50K?$75K0 2.57, M!$75K02.50), F(3, 176)00.56, p0.64, h20.009. Likewise, there

were no significant differences in disgust sensitivity by party affiliation, F(3,


176)01.89, p0.13, h20.03, although disgust sensitivity was directionally

higher for Republicans (M02.66) than for others (MDemocrat02.56, MIndependent02.47, Mother02.35). Finally, disgust sensitivity did not differ

by religious affiliation (Matheist/agnostic02.09, MProtestant02.56, MCatholic0 2.60, Mother02.64), F(3, 173)01.27, p0.29, h20.02.1


Political orientation. Regressing disgust sensitivity scores on self-

reported conservatism showed that disgust sensitivity predicted conservatism, b0.22, t(178)03.04, pB.01, h20.05. Since there was not a

significant difference in disgust sensitivity between religious groups, it is

unlikely that the relationship between disgust sensitivity and conservatism


can be explained by religious affiliation. Nonetheless, we tested this

hypothesis by simultaneously regressing disgust sensitivity scores and

religious affiliation on conservatism. Religious affiliation of any kind (as

opposed to atheism/agnosticism) significantly predicted conservatism, F(3,

172)02.87, pB.05, h20.04, but disgust sensitivity remained a significant


predictor as well, b0.23, t(172)03.15, pB.002, h20.05. Thus, religious

affiliation does not appear to explain the relationship between disgust

sensitivity and conservatism.


This study had two goals: first, we wanted to replicate the correlation


between disgust sensitivity and conservatism using the full 32-item Disgust

Scale Version 2 (Haidt, 2004), and a more sensitive measure of political

ideology. To this end, all participants completed the full Disgust Sensitivity

1 This and the subsequent analysis involving religious affiliation exclude the three participants who were Hindu or Jewish.

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Scale. They also completed an expanded political orientation measure, where

they indicated the degree to which the terms Republican, Democrat,


Independent, Conservative, and Liberal described their political ideology on

a 7-point scale anchored by Weak and Strong. (Participants also had the

option of not selecting a response if they felt that a term did not apply to


Second, we hypothesised that because disgust is specifically associated


with perceived violations of purity-related norms important to conservatives

(Haidt & Graham, 2007), disgust sensitivity should be especially associated

with conservative attitudes on issues related to sexual purity. To test this

hypothesis, we assessed participants' stances on ten specific political issues.

We created this list of issues by first asking a large sample of undergraduates


(N0582) to list the five political issues ``that are most important to you''.

From this list, we selected issues that were mentioned frequently and that

concerned a range of policy domains (e.g., foreign affairs, tax policy, social/

moral issues, etc.). By adapting questions from existing public opinion

surveys, we created a specific statement addressing each issue and pre-tested


these statements with two separate groups of undergraduate participants

(total N084). After eliminating items that showed a low correlation with

participants' self-reported political orientation, we were left with ten issues:

gay marriage, abortion, gun control, labour unions, bombing Iran, welfare, Iraq

war, affirmative action, tax cuts, and the death penalty.


Participants in the current study read a statement about each issue and

rated the extent to which they agreed with the statement using a 7-point scale

anchored by Completely disagree and Completely agree. (See Appendix 1 for

the complete list of statements.) We expected that disgust sensitivity would

strongly predict responses to the purity-related (i.e., gay marriage and


abortion) items, but that this effect would be weaker for the other items.


Participants were 91 Cornell undergraduates who completed the study by

logging onto an Internet web site in exchange for a chance to win a cash

prize. Seven failed to complete the entire study, leaving 84 participants (69


female). Participants always completed the measures in the same order: the

political orientation scale came first, followed by the Disgust Sensitivity

Scale and, finally, the political issues scale.


Political orientation. If participants did not rate themselves on a term


(indicating that it did not apply to them) we gave them a rating of zero for

that term (all participants rated themselves on at least one term). We

then added participants' ratings of themselves as ``Conservative'' and

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