By PETER LIBERMAN and DAVID PIZARRO
New York Times
Published: October 23, 2010
JUST days before New York’s Republican gubernatorial primary, Carl Paladino mailed out thousands of campaign ads impregnated with the smell of rotting garbage. Emblazoned with the message “Something Stinks in Albany” and photos of scandal-tainted New York Democrats like former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Representative Charles Rangel, the brochure attacked Mr. Paladino’s rival, former Representative Rick Lazio, for being “liberal” and a part of the state’s corrupt political system.
At first glance, the revolting scent seemed like another attention-grabbing stunt from Mr. Paladino. But recent research on disgust suggests that the odor may have had additional, hidden effects on the 200,000 registered Republicans who received the brochures.
The emotion of disgust, many researchers believe, evolved to protect us from contamination. It is easily elicited by feces, pus, vomit, putrid meat and other substances linked to pathogens. A single picture, a few choice words and, yes, a slight odor can elicit a surprisingly intense reaction.
Disgust’s origins as a protector against contamination can be seen in its characteristic and universal facial expression: the wrinkling of the nose, curling of the upper lips and protrusion of the tongue.
Wrinkling the nose has been shown to prevent pathogens from entering through the nasal cavity, and sticking out the tongue aids the expulsion of tainted food and is a common precursor to vomiting.
But disgust does more than just keep us away from poisonous substances. It also exerts a powerful and idiosyncratic influence on judgment. People who are feeling disgust become harsher in their judgments of moral offenses and offenders.
Consider recent experiments by the psychologist Simone Schnall and her
colleagues: people who were sitting in a foul-smelling room or at a desk cluttered with dirty food containers judged acts like lying on a résumé or keeping a wallet found on the street as more immoral than individuals who were asked to make the same judgments in a clean environment. This general finding has been replicated by other psychologists using a variety of disgust elicitors and moral behaviors.
Subtle cues about disgust and cleanliness can affect social and political judgments as well. In an experiment conducted recently by Erik Helzer, a Cornell Ph.D. student, and one of us (David Pizarro), merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs. Participants who were randomly positioned in front of a hand sanitizer gave more conservative responses to a survey about their moral, social and fiscal attitudes than those individuals assigned to complete the questionnaire at the other end of the hallway.
In another experiment one of us (Dr. Pizarro) was involved in, a foul ambient smell — emitted, unbeknownst to test subjects, by a novelty spray — caused people answering a questionnaire to report more negative attitudes toward gay men than did people who responded in the absence of the stench. Apparently, the slightest signal that germs might be present is enough to shift political attitudes toward the right.
Why does a mechanism that originally evolved to protect us from pathogens affect our reactions to people and behavior? One possibility is that early humans were endangered by contact with outside clans that carried diseases for which they had not developed immunity.
Reacting with disgust toward members of groups seen as foreign, strange or norm-violating might have functioned as a behavioral immune system.
Consistent with this, researchers at the University of British Columbia have shown that individuals who see themselves as particularly vulnerable to disease (a trait that is correlated with disgust sensitivity) tend to report more xenophobic attitudes. These studies, we might add, did not set out to study extreme hypochondriacs, clean freaks or slobs, but rather drew on samples of ordinary college students.