Democrats perceive faces labeled as Republicans as physically disgusting and vice versa, according to new research published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. The findings indicate that political outgroup members can induce feelings of both disgust and anger among partisans.
Disgust is believed to be part of the behavioral immune system, which protects people from infectious disease by creating an aversion to potential pathogens. The emotional state has also been connected with discriminatory behaviors.
“Most of my research is about how people make judgments about morality,” said study author Justin F. Landy, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Nova Southeastern University. “Within that field, there is a lot of debate about what, if anything, the emotion of disgust has to do with moral judgments; some of my own work has shown that it probably has very little to do with judgments of people’s actions, but other researchers have suggested that it might be involved in judgments of the people themselves – their moral character.”
“So, questions like this have been bouncing around in my head for a while. This particular project began when I spent a year as a visiting faculty member at Franklin & Marshall College. My friends and colleagues Josh Rottman, Carlota Batres, and Kristi Leimgruber and I were talking about the role of disgust in evaluations of people, and it occurred to us that no one had really looked at whether other people can make us feel disgusted, in a physical, bodily sense, just by being members of some outgroup. So, that’s what we wanted to test.”
To examine the relationship between disgust and partisanship, the researchers conducted three studies with 915 participants in total. Study 1 was conducted in November 2018, shortly after the 2018 midterm elections. Study 2 was conducted in July 2019. Study 3 was conducted in fall 2020, prior to the presidential election.
In all three studies, the participants viewed and rated a series of photographs of human faces with neutral expressions, which were accompanied by information about each person’s political preferences. In Studies 1 and 2, the faces were paired with personal information. In Study 3, the people were shown wearing a shirt that expressed support for one political party (e.g., “Proud Democrat” or “Proud Republican”).
The researchers used a wide variety of measures of disgust. Study 1 asked participants how “gross” each person was on a 9-point scale, ranging from not at all to extremely. Studies 2 and 3 asked how much each person made them “feel disgusted,” “feel grossed out,” and “feel nauseated, gag, and lose your appetite.” Study 3 also recorded the participants’ facial expressions and used Noldus FaceReader software to categorize their emotional reactions.
“We mostly relied on self-report measures of emotion, which can be problematic. However, we were very careful to use self-reports that very concretely represent the experience of physical disgust, and are not likely to accidentally measure moralistic disgust or other kinds of emotions,” Landy said.
The participants were also asked to make other judgments about the people in the photographs (such as their attractiveness, intelligence, trustworthiness, and morality) and indicate how angry the photographs made them. “By allowing participants to rate outgroup members as immoral, unintelligent, and so on, we hoped to reduce theoretically uninteresting use of the grossness scale to express general negativity,” the researchers explained.
Across all three studies, Landy and his colleagues found that Democrats and Republicans reported feeling more physically disgusted after seeing a supporter of the opposite party compared to a supporter of their own party.
“The emotions we feel towards people we disagree with politically are quite nuanced and complex,” Landy told PsyPost. “We specifically measured anger and disgust, and found that people strongly feel both of these emotions. So, our attitudes toward political outgroups go beyond just disagreement or even dislike; they’re characterized by these really visceral, intense emotions, and that might be one reason why we so rarely engage with people we disagree with, except maybe at Thanksgiving dinner.”
But the effect was smaller when “grossed out” or “feel nauseated” was used compared to when “disgusted” was used. Viewing a political opponent was also unrelated to facial expressions of disgust. These findings highlight that “the kind of measure you use matters, and the way you design your study matters, in ways that aren’t always totally obvious,” Landy explained.
“As for what’s next, one open question is how far we can generalize these findings,” the researcher continued. “Do we feel disgusted by all outgroups, or is this unique to people whose politics we disagree with? Or is the answer somewhere in the middle – some types of outgroups elicit disgust but others don’t? At this point, we don’t really know. What we can say with confidence is that members of the ‘other’ political party clearly make us feel disgusted, in a very concrete, very physical sense. And that is something we didn’t know before.”
The study, “Disgusting Democrats and Repulsive Republicans: Members of Political Outgroups Are Considered Physically Gross“, was authored by Justin F. Landy, Joshua Rottman, Carlota Batres, and Kristin L. Leimgruber.