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Weird ... does high disgust sensitivity mitigate political polarization??...

I did a couple of posts a while back (here & here) on disgust and GM-food- and vaccine-risk perceptions.

The upshot was that, contrary to the argument advanced by some scholars and by some popular-writing commentators, neither of these risk perceptions appeared to be distinctively related to disgust sensitivities. These perceptions, and some related policy preferences, were not any more meaningfully correlated with disgust sensitivity than were myriad other risks perceptions and policy preferences that aren’t plausibly viewed as disgust related (e.g., falling down elevator shafts, flying on commercial airliners, raising income taxes for the wealthy, enacting campaign finance laws, etc.).

But here’s another thing: the disgust sensitivity measure we used—the so called “pathogen disgust” scale (PDS), which is supposed to measure a disposition to be disgusted and hence afraid of sources of bodily invasion—has some truly weird interactions with political outlooks.

Take a look for yourself: 

Basically, increasing disgust sensitivity makes the group that otherwise is inclined to perceive low risk or express low support for risk-abating policies experience an inversion of that sensibility. As a result, on issues where there was substantial political polarization, there is a convergence of positions among the citizens of highest disgust sensitivity.

Why would that be? 

What’s especially weird is that PDS is supposed to predict political conservativism; yet here we have high-disgust conservatives clearly behaving more like liberals on climate  change, and high-disgust liberals behavior more like conservatives (it didn’t in our survey; the relationship between disgust and conservative outlooks was trivail in magnitude: r = 0.09).

Maybe I just don’t feel very imaginative today, but I am not inclined to come up with a story that fits the data. 

Instead I’m experiencing a bit of uncertainty about whether I should really be trusting the “pathogen disgust” scale.  It seems, basically, to be eliciting a kind of generic survey agreement bias; it’s influence is most detectable only in that portion of the population whose members aren’t already inclined to agree with the survey item and who thus can move in concern without the constraint of a ceiling effect in the outcome measure. . . .

But what do others think?


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Reader Comments (17)

A bit of uncertainty? I read the Tuber, et al article. The authors are obviously intelligent people. And there is something to the idea that the human emotion of disgust does affect decision making. But humans are complicated. So all three methods they study seem fraught with confounding variables involving different peoples experiences and backgrounds. It is really too bad that there are not crowds of potential disgust denialists lying about, because this paper compiles so much material here to work with.

Which I believe is also the case of the x-y scales in the graphs above. I've brought up my objections previously. But really, now, after the election that we just experienced, why graph populations as if significant numbers of members of the public in the US can be neatly described as Liberal Democrat, Conservative Republican or something in between?

December 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

One way to effectively reframe and restart a discussion of "pathogen disgust" would be to start with actual science of actual pathogens. I highly recommend "I Contain Multitudes. The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life" by Ed Yong. Ed is an excellent science communicator. Of the type that delivers facts in a highly fascinating, captivating and even entertaining manner that is highly illuminating and very educational as well. As with some others, such as David Attenborough or Carl Sagan, Ed Yong is probably among the people who can do effective outreach to those who have not quite yet realized that they are scientifically curious.

December 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

If you let go the idea that disgust is conservative, then it seems plausible. Certainly no shortage of disgust from the left these days. In particular, the vaccine thing. If you fear infection, make vaccination mandatory. Rational, that. Dislike for pollution and inclination to fear the invisible lines up too. If foreigners evoke disgust to some degree, why shouldn't xenophobia converge across political boundaries? Especially if there is some limit compressing the extremes, either in the measurement or realty.

December 16, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRob MacLachlan

Are you sure you aren't just measuring SCRD again? I think you are.

All the "convergences" are towards the high end of the risk assessment. You haven't found any instances where increased pathogen disgust induces convergence towards a finding of safety or inaction.

I'll bet the generic "pathogen disgust" coheres with the drowning in swimming pools, etc.

December 16, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

@Dypoon-- there is something S-CATy about the disgust measure, for sure

December 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Rob-- I could almost go for that, but why in heck would high-disgust sensitivity predict fear of global warming in conservs?

December 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Gaythia-- you are right about the political outlooks scales. And thanks for the reference to Yong book--I'd order it right now from Amazon but it is out of stock (no doubt b/c it was strategically designed to fit in X-mas stockings)

December 17, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"but why in heck would high-disgust sensitivity predict fear of global warming in conservs?"

Has anyone considered asking them?

If these surveys routinely had some sort of question tagged on to the end "...and why do you thing so?" you would have material with which to start constructing hypotheses. Granted, you can't always trust self-reported introspection. But surely it's better than nothing?

The most obvious speculation is that they're opposed to all forms of "dirty pollution". But without data, it's no more than speculation.

December 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Dan, Ed Yong is a prolific writer, so while you are waiting for the book, you can still read his work online.

For example:


December 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis


what would you ask?

How about, "You, sir, seem to loathe stepping in dog shit, I see. So tell me why you are so much more worried about climate change than other conservatives?"

December 18, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Dan: Other possible political outlook scales are given below.

In this Brookings article:

" All 22 of the states that emitted the most energy-related carbon per capita voted for Trump over Clinton last month, including, in order, Wyoming, North Dakota, West Virginia, Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, Kentucky, Indiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa, Texas, and Alabama. "

And from Brookings again, via the Washington Post:

" With the exceptions of the Phoenix and Fort Worth areas, and a big chunk of Long Island, Clinton won every large-sized economic county in the country."

"The Brookings analysis found that counties with higher GDP per capita were more likely to vote for Clinton over Trump, as were counties with higher population density. Counties with a higher share of manufacturing employment were more likely to vote for Trump.

“This is a picture of a very polarized and increasingly concentrated economy,” said Mark Muro, the policy director at the Brookings metro program, “with the Democratic base aligning more to that more concentrated modern economy, but a lot of votes and anger to be had in the rest of the country.”"

Or, in other words, it was a Luddite reaction election.

December 18, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

"but why in heck would high-disgust sensitivity predict fear of global warming in conservs?"

This is the key. I don't think pathogen disgust is really a disgust measure, so much as a measure of fearing something you can't see. If you want a good disgust measure, make people watch videos of slugs mating and ask them if it's cool or yucky. Make them watch a video of a dirt-brown liquid leaking out of a pipe and ask them how likely it is to be shit instead of silt.

What I see in the pathogen disgust result is a fear sensitivity item predicting fear of global warming in conservs. But we already know that fear predicts itself. I think it's a SCRD effect.

December 19, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

@dypoon-- I think that is a very plausible assessment; PDS doesn't really work as advertised, as far as I can tell

December 19, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"How about, "You, sir, seem to loathe stepping in dog shit, I see. So tell me why you are so much more worried about climate change than other conservatives?""

Yes. That would be a good start, except of course that you would ask both high-disgust and low-disgust conservatives, and look for differences in the arguments and sentiments they use.

You asked how much risk they thought global warming posed to human health and prosperity. What do they think those risks are? What are their reasons for thinking the risks are as high or low as they are? Where do they get their information from?

Do they get their views from newspapers? Maybe the high-disgust conservatives read different papers.
Do they get their views from TV? Maybe high-disgust conservatives watch different channels, or are sat inside watching TV instead of enjoying outdoor pursuits (where they might step in some dogshit?)
Do they trust government experts, or internet experts, or "scientists", or environmentalists? Do they have greater trust for environmental scientists because they agree with them on other forms of pollution?
Do high-disgust conservatives tend to live in cities, surrounded by a more liberal culture? Do they have more liberal friends?
Are low-disgust conservatives more rebellious and contrarian - rejecting parental advice about "dirty!" the same way they reject the political elites?
Are low-disgust conservatives more likely to work in "dirty" industries? Like farmers (who are usually up to their ankles in it), or doctors, or factory workers, as opposed to an office job?
Do high-disgust conservatives have a higher tolerance for regulation? Do low-disgust conservatives value individual freedom more highly?

The problem is there are a million-and-one different dimensions of variation, and we don't even have enough understanding to be able to ask the right questions. In that situation, you start off with general, open-ended questions where you invite people to explain their reasoning in their own words, you pick out possible common themes and patterns, and then you ask more specific questions with greater statistical rigor to test them.

But it's a problem when you start off with some theory as to why those people believe what they believe, (based on your own political stereotypes, say), and jump straight to testing - as happens with the "Republican Brain" stuff. The testing tells you it's wrong, but that in itself gives you no clue where to start looking for alternatives.

Have you built, for example, a taxonomy of all the reasons why people believe/disbelieve in global warming risk, and then matched the reasons people use against your other personality metrics? Do, for example, high science curiosity people cite science documentaries for their beliefs? Do different groups tend to use the political, economic, or scientific arguments more? Do different groups have different degrees of respect for scientific authority figures, like peer-reviewed journals, government spokesmen, science journalists, the IPCC? Do different groups have different attitudes to normal-versus-revolutionary science? That is, do they prefer the stories of the lone maverick overturning scientific paradigm in a battle against the establishment, or stories of scientists united in a joint endeavor? Do they have different attitudes to quality and attention to detail? That is, do they see progress as being about rushing ahead with the most exciting, cutting-edge developments, leaving it to the engineers to iron out the details, or do they see science as about slow and steady pedantic attention to detail; checks, calibration, documentation, and so on? Do they see science as adversarial, or cooperative? On the political/economic side, are their arguments more about being in favour of industrial development and technological progress, or about suspicion of regulation and government control? Are they optimists or pessimists about industrial development? Are they about free markets, or maximising profits, or reducing inequality, or protecting the environment? Is freedom or prosperity more important? Big government or small government?

If, for example, you found that conservatives got their views mainly from their social circle outside work, then you know where to start looking. You can ask how do high and low disgust conservative differ in their friends? On the other hand, if you find they get their views from the media, then you can ask them what media sources they look at, and how do they go about assessing their reliability?

For that matter, you probably want a more detailed taxonomy of beliefs about global warming. There are people who don't think it's happening. People who do think it's happening but isn't a risk. And there are people who think it's the end of the world. Suppose you have two groups of people who both think there's a 1% risk of disaster - one group might find that 1% unacceptable, the other might think it trivial. People with exactly the same belief about global warming could therefore have very different assessments of the level of concern it justifies.

How could we possibly tell without a lot more data on what people actually believe and why?

December 19, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

If there was some sort of freefloating sense of "bio-disgust" about, that might explain why environmental protection as an issue has been historically unanchored from the left/right authoritarian/liberal 2x2 diagram of all things - today it's broadly associated with the left/liberal quadrant, but Nazi green was a thing!

December 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAlex

@Alex-- good conjectures ... stay tuned for paper w/ more disgust findings/data

December 22, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

W.r.t. Dan: "@Rob-- I could almost go for that, but why in heck would high-disgust sensitivity predict fear of global warming in conservs?"

Could it be as simple as high-disgust sensitive conservatives can't stand Ann Coulter, Breitbart, Matt Drudge, and the many other radical wreckers injecting radical weirdness into "convervatism"?

January 6, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterHal Morris

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