Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

People Who Are Easily Disgusted Tend To Oppose Immigration, Study Finds

A new study suggests that sensitivity to the emotion of disgust affects one's attitudes on immigration.

A Donald Trump supporter protests – photo by Spencer Platt

A recent study shows that people who are easily disgusted are more likely to hold anti-immigration views. The findings are just the latest in a growing body of research on how disgust sensitivity affects human values and behavior.


First, why would disgust have anything to do with opinions on immigration?

Disgust is a protective emotion. It causes us to lurch back from a rotten apple, or steer far away from dog poop on the sidewalk. These reactions are part of the behavioral immune system, which evolved to help us detect and avoid things in our environment that cause disease. That’s why we find some things universally repulsive – urine, feces, vomit.

What’s strange, however, is that our sense of disgust can extend beyond these things and into the social world, causing some of us to feel repulsed by certain ethnic groups, homosexuality or social behavior. And because disgust is a protective emotion, it's not surprising that many people high in disgust sensitivity are conservative. Over the past two decades, studies have shown that individuals who are easily disgusted are more likely to:

  • Support conservative political parties and ideology
  • Oppose gay marriage, abortion and immigration
  • Strongly condemn moral violations
  • This recent paper, authored by researchers Lene AaroeMichael Bang Petersen and Kevin Arceneaux, provides the best evidence yet that disgust sensitivity plays a causal role in shaping opinions on immigration. The researchers surveyed four sets of participants in the U.S. and Denmark to analyze the relationship between anti-immigration sentiment and disgust sensitivity. 

    To measure immigration attitudes, researchers asked participants to rate their level of agreement with statements like “Immigrants improve American (or Danish) culture by bringing in new ideas and cultures.”

    Disgust sensitivity was measured similarly with statements such as “I never let any part of my body touch the toilet seat in public restrooms.” In addition, a small group of students participated in a study that measured disgust sensitivity through skin conductance while they viewed images related to infection and disease.

    The findings clearly showed that people with a high sensitivity to disgust, no matter where they're from, are more likely to hold anti-immigration views.

    But perhaps the strangest finding came from a study in which two groups of participants were asked to read a passage that described a hospital employee coming in contact with bodily fluids. The passage given to one group, however, included an extra part in which the hospital employee thoroughly washes his hands. Anti-immigration sentiment dropped by 47 percent among this group, leading researchers to effectively rule out concerns that "the effects of pathogen avoidance are spurious," adding:

    [Pathogen avoidance] plays a causal role in the formation of immigration attitudes and because hand washing is not logically connected with immigration attitudes, it ostensibly does so outside of one’s conscious awareness.

    Overall, the results of the paper are unsettling for two main reasons:

    It is the presence of physically and culturally distinct immigrants that poses a threat to individuals concerned about pathogens, not the intentions of the immigrants. Second, individuals motivated by pathogen avoidance are especially motivated to avoid contact with immigrants, potentially preventing the sorts of experiences that may engender tolerance. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that the behavioral immune system emerges as a potent—and distinct—obstacle to inclusive attitudes and tolerance.

    These newly articulated obstacles shed light on how complex the immigration predicament is in countries like Germany, France and the U.S. The research indicates that anti-immigration sentiment might be less related to the empirical problems immigrants pose, and more of a deeply rooted evolutionary response. Cultural or moral failures, it seems, don't fully explain the vehement opposition.  

    Of course, this isn't to say that there's never a rational, empirical case to be made against immigration. But given the fact that there's a large variance in disgust sensitivity across populations, it begs the question: Are discussions between liberals and conservatives about immigration a waste of time?

    (May Day protestors march in Washington, D.C., photo by Jim Watson)

    Maybe not. The study authors wrote:

    It is plausible that the increased familiarity following substantial and continuous personal contact leads individuals to stop categorizing immigrants as pathogen threats. In this way, ethnic tolerance may turn out to be an “acquired taste.”

    The key question seems to be: How might the public conversation about immigration change if more people knew about disgust and the behavioral immune system?

    As psychologists continue to study how personality traits affect ideological beliefs, it seems increasingly unproductive to write off all opponents of immigration as racists or xenophobes. They exist, sure. But in some cases, it might be just as valid to blame tuberculosis or leprosy.

    If you're interested in finding out how sensitive you are to disgust, you can visit YourMorals.org and fill out the Disgust Scale that was developed by psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley and Paul Rozin.

    Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

    Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

    Credit: Neom
    Technology & Innovation
    • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
    • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
    • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
    Keep reading Show less

    Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

    A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

    Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

    Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
    Surprising Science
    • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
    • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
    • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
    Keep reading Show less

    Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

    A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

    Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
    Mind & Brain
    • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
    • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
    • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

    Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

    The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

    An odd find

    Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

    Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

    "Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

    Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

    The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

    Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

    "We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

    Why understanding memory matters

    person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

    Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

    "Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

    If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

    Party chat

    Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

    Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

    Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

    spinning 3D model of a brain

    Temporal lobes

    Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

    At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

    Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

    In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

    Seek, find

    Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

    He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

    Videos

    Does conscious AI deserve rights?

    If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast