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 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:
This recent paper, authored by researchers Lene Aaroe, Michael 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.
What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.
- Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.
- Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
- Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
- The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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