follow CCP

Recent blog entries
popular papers

Science Curiosity and Political Information Processing

What Is the "Science of Science Communication"?

Climate-Science Communication and the Measurement Problem

Ideology, Motivated Cognition, and Cognitive Reflection: An Experimental Study

'Ideology' or 'Situation Sense'? An Experimental Investigation of Motivated Reasoning and Professional Judgment

A Risky Science Communication Environment for Vaccines

Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government

Making Climate Science Communication Evidence-based—All the Way Down 

Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law 

Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus

The Tragedy of the Risk-Perception Commons: Science Literacy and Climate Change

"They Saw a Protest": Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction 

Geoengineering and the Science Communication Environment: a Cross-Cultural Experiment

Fixing the Communications Failure

Why We Are Poles Apart on Climate Change

The Cognitively Illiberal State 

Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn't, and Why? An Experimental Study

Cultural Cognition of the Risks and Benefits of Nanotechnology

Whose Eyes Are You Going to Believe? An Empirical Examination of Scott v. Harris

Cultural Cognition and Public Policy

Culture, Cognition, and Consent: Who Perceives What, and Why, in "Acquaintance Rape" Cases

Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White Male Effect

Fear of Democracy: A Cultural Evaluation of Sunstein on Risk

Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk

« Precis for Clarendon lectures this Nov. at Oxford | Main | ♪ "I'm goin' to Jackson..." Oh, wait--I meant ♪"goin' to Stockholm" »

Disgust and the right-left asymmetry thesis ... some preliminary data

Being a faithful servant of this blog's 14 billion regular readers (there’s another billion or so on any day who are just passing through), I am continuing my study of disgust and its role in conflict over decision-relevant science.

We already have produced one working paper on disgust and perceptions of the risks of GM foods & vaccines all fit together. The answer, I suppose, was “not very well.”

So here’s some new data, collected by CCP & the Annenberg Public Policy Center, to think about.

A couple of yrs ago, there was a debate on this site about whether disgust sensibilities and risk perceptions were concentrated in the right—a kind of asymmetry claim for disgust as a mediator of attitudes toward particular taboo activities.   Well, we decided to try our hand at generating some evidence that might shed light on this question.

First, we measured how disgusted our subjects (drawn from a diverse national panel) were to feel toward certain objects. Take a look:

I think the disgust-asymmetricists would be surprised to see that guns elicit expressions of disgust that are as large as the amount elicited by prositution. Surprised too to see that marijuana is at the bottom of this ranking –but as disgust-eliciting, more or less, as nuclear power plants.

(BTW, take a look at this to help you evaluate whether a self-report measure of disgust is valid, consider Russel, et al. 2013 & Gutierrez et al. 2012 ].)

Next we plotted out these diverse expressions of disgust with left-right political outlooks:

Huh.  Sure looks like disgust symmetry rather than asymmetry.

Finally, we did an experiment in which subjects were furnished empirical studies that variously found these activities to be harmful or inert (even beneficial) in relation to societal wellbeing. We manipulated which one found which conclusion, and measured two separate groups of subjects’ reactions to whether the study in question was sound and persuasive:

Classic biased assimilation (Lord, Ross, Lepper 1979), these results look a lot like what you get when you observe how conventional measures of left-right political outlooks provoke biased information evaluations of these activities. Basically, people are deciding which study they find more persuasisve, less biased etc. based on whether the activity strikes them as disgusting.

Well, this one is still in the shop. But the apparatus that's being constructed there is starting to look recognizable--& recognizably symmetric with respect to ideology.

Thoughts, anyone?


Gutierrez, R., Giner-Sorolla, R. & Vasiljevic, M. Just an anger synonym? Moral context influences predictors of disgust word use. Cognition Emotion 26, 53-64 (2012).

Lord, C.G., Ross, L. & Lepper, M.R. Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization - Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37, 2098-2109 (1979).

Russell, P.S. & Giner-Sorolla, R. Bodily moral disgust: What it is, how it is different from anger, and why it is an unreasoned emotion. Psychological Bulletin 139, 328 (2013).

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (8)

link drop:

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan


September 7, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Well, shame on them for not citing you!

Anyhow, this brings up the issue of how to distinguish between the disgust affect and the use of displays of disgust to flag other non-disgust concerns.

If you could show that actual affect disgust is going on when a lefty claims to be grossed out by a shiny AR-15, that would be one thing (and I'd be surprised). If you are only showing that a lefty is claiming to be grossed out, that's much less surprising (way down towards the mundane, actually).

My hypothesis is that we (both lefties and righties) use displays of disgust to attempt to recruit others to a view we have. There are several reasons for this: One is that if we fail, then all we've done is demonstrate an unarguable personal affect, which is a very defensible position (few would accuse us of immorality, and our social standing in the in-group won't be penalized). Another is that we as humans understand that the best way to recruit is to gain access to the sub-rational processes of others (Conditional friends are the worst! Convincing rational justifications are soooo hard!). A third is that the purity/disgust foundation is quite powerful - apparently powerful enough to undercut the other foundations, as well as undercut selfishness (as in those cases where people get angry when offered money to sell off something sacred - and more angry as the price goes up).

As for asymmetry, I'd look at both where disgust is most prominent as an actual affect and where it is most successful as a tool of recruitment (spoiler: I suspect both are higher on the right). I would suspect more symmetry in the prevalence of its use as a tool of recruitment (because it is such an easy and low cost/high benefit move - how effective it is matters less).

This could explain why disgust was highest among those displaying counter-ingroup preferences in your paper: they may be trying to move their group in their preferred direction on that issue in a way that won't cost them group standing if it fails, while other avenues for such recruitment might be well closed off due to perceived obligations of group membership.

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan: "My hypothesis is that we (both lefties and righties) use displays of disgust to attempt to recruit others to a view we have."

Yet if this was consciously done, wouldn't the survey context largely rule it out? (can't recruit anyone by simply answering the survey questions). If it is sub-consciously done, isn't this indistinguishable to the disgust being genuine? Hope and fear and other emotions are involved in recruitment too (their invocation by religious narratives being a classic case). This is a part of the long evolved social role of such emotions, which role includes disgust as part of the social policing mechanism (e.g. disgust for out-group behaviors). While some folks indeed try to deliberately deploy emotive signalling, the genuinely felt emotions that cause passionate re-transmission of the narratives or symbolism that evoked them, are what power big social movements. Which narratives are hence emergent, from a turnover of millions of both deliberate and subconscious selections.

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


If it is sub-consciously done, isn't this indistinguishable to the disgust being genuine?

Probably distinguishable by FMRI, or maybe even just pulse and skin conductivity. Also suspect it can be attenuated by explicit social acceptance of the stimulus by the in-group (but genuine affect disgust, not so much, or certainly not quickly - maybe as an acquired taste).

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Jonathan: "Probably distinguishable by FMRI, or maybe even just pulse and skin conductivity."

If it is subconscious, then there is no lie to detect via these means. And if it is consciously done, people will frequently detect via body language (a social stance has to be maintained full time). Hence genuinely felt disgust, like genuinely felt hope and fear and the rest, is far and away a much better recruiter. More passionate, more persuasive, no disparity between the overt message and the underlying signs. Those recruited will have genuine belief and re-transmit accordingly; those only in cultural alliance will exhibit 'convenient belief' (which questions like Dan's that turn on/off identity protective challenge, are able to expose). Yet even the latter is a subconscious bias for most, not a conscious act.

September 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West


If it is subconscious, then there is no lie to detect via these means.

Oops - sorry for the ambiguity. I was trying to detect the genuine disgust affect by those means. Some physiological manifestations that can't be faked easily, but which aren't obvious to bystanders. Skilled fakers exist (should be relatively uncontroversial).

Hence genuinely felt disgust, like genuinely felt hope and fear and the rest, is far and away a much better recruiter.

No argument there. My theory is just that it sometimes works to fake it. It is low cost, high benefit, and easy - so even if not as effective as the real thing, it's worth a shot. Which implies that if one asks people what disgusts them, the answer may be a larger set of things than what actually does create affect disgust in them.

Also (an add on to my hypothesis): this "fake" disgust may be used as virtue signalling (obviously for already approved in-group beliefs). Because, if you're disgusted, that's understood to represent a very stable foundation for your stance, hence signalling high affinity for the in group.

But this presents a bit of a paradox: if disgust is understood to be a stable foundation, how does one manage to use it at low cost to attempt to move the in group? Could it be that disgust is understood as stable by others when they agree, while also understood as beyond reproach when they disagree (as long as they are in the same in-group)? Maybe signalling both disgust for an in-group preference and the desire to sublimate that disgust (which can be signaled later) below some in-group principle work to maintain in group status?

September 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

"Skilled fakers exist..."

A few are no doubt able to use conscious skills to maintain an undetected mask of signalling that is disparate to their internal beliefs, difficult though this is on the permanent basis that is critical to perceived integrity. From time to time some such people are exposed. But regarding mass effects in the public, it is the real affect mechanisms and the resultant subconscious behavior that dominates. And if the fakers are only in it to extract a better status from the group, maintaining a permanent disparity to this end is actually a very high mental investment. Not to mention that the powerful emergent cultures are those for which most individuals would gladly *donate* effort (and in some cases the ultimate offering of their life), due to a genuine belief in whatever hope, fear, digust, joy, etc. combination delivered in narrative form, recruited them. It is a fundamental error to try and decode main behaviors regarding cultural alignment (or opposition) and associated affect, down to personal advantage. We are social beings; identity defense is frequently at personal disadvantage.

"My theory is just that..."

It is only easy one off. As time goes on, an obvious difficulty emerges.

"Also (an add on to my hypothesis): this "fake" disgust may be used as virtue signalling..."

Most virtue signalling is not fake. Cultural narratives build in virtue signalling to be swallowed with the rest. For that which is fake, cultural groups typically have multiple filters and high investment thresholds designed to weed out parasites, including fakers who would steal status from the group without paying their dues. This is part of the reason for membership rituals, tests of loyalty, and particularly harsh punishments for freeloaders.

"But this presents a bit of a paradox..."

I think only from conflicting assumptions. At any rate I do not even know what you mean by 'stable foundation'. Nor is digust particularly different to a range of other emotional drivers. And individuals do not in general 'move the group' with disgust, or any other emotion. This way of phrasing things implies a specific origin of causation which is not valid. Cultures are emergent group phenomena. A range of emotive drivers delivered in particular co-evolving narratives causes group emergence, and direction thereafter. The very many selections, modifications, and re-transmissions by very many individuals are the fundamental mechanism of that emergence, but no-one is 'in charge' of the digust for instance, or any other aspect as such. The group is steered by the sum of the selections, which at any one time forms the value set to aspire / conform to. (This is why the values of most cultural groups constantly change, even though some claim they are constant). In this context disgust is often a part of the emergent policing function, but what to be disgusted at is a result of the constant selection (which is often of a reinforcing nature) and resultant updated narrative. For sure this does not eliminate personal intelligences and each and all of their unique contributions or inspirations or desires to rise in the group, especially at critical nexus points. But these are legion, and selection is still selection however made. If the group is small enough that they are not legion, then personal behavior matters more and cultural rules may not hold, albeit group-think can occur on a pretty small scale. Rep / Con and Dem / Lib values, for example, live across many millions of folks.

September 8, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAndy West

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>