Visual attentiveness to disgust is linked to political views, study finds

How much a person looks at disgusting scenes and disgusted facial expressions can predict whether they’re socially conservative or not, according to new research.

Previous studies have found that people who endorse conservative views tend to be more sensitive to disgust than those who endorse liberal views. The new study, recently published in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, provides evidence that attentiveness to disgust is associated with political ideology.

“My general interest in the topic is rooted in a desire to better understand why people endorse very different social and political beliefs. If we can understand why people endorse different political beliefs, we might be able to use that information to help make the world a more politically tolerant place,” explained study author Benjamin Oosterhoff of the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

The study of 261 introductory psychology students used an eye tracking device to observe ideological differences in attentional engagement.

The researchers found that more socially conservative participants tended to have less attentional engagement with images displaying disgusting scenes. However, social conservatism was associated with greater attentional engagement toward disgust facial expressions.

“People should be aware that the way we process emotion — in this case, our attention to emotional content — may have broader implications for political beliefs,” Oosterhoff told PsyPost.

“In this study, we found that the way people are visually attuned to disgust-related information specifically was connected with greater endorsement of social conservatism. This tells us that the way people experience disgust may be important for how they form political attitudes.”

But why the difference between disgusting scenes and disgusted faces? Oosterhoff and his colleagues believe that socially conservative individuals have a heightened motivation to avoid disgusting objects. They pay more attention to disgusted facial expressions because it is an indication that a disgusting object is nearby.

“Very few studies have used eye-tracking methodology to understand ideological differences in visual attention. As eye-tracking equipment becomes more accessible, we will want to replicate these findings across multiple laboratories,” Oosterhoff added.

“Additionally, our findings only establish a connection between visual attention to disgust and political beliefs, and we did not examine the processes that explain this connection. It will be important to study potential explanations for this link to get a better understanding of the processes that are at work here.”

The study, “Is that disgust I see? Political ideology and biased visual attention“, was co-authored by Natalie J. Shook and Cameron Ford.