Study: Trump voters show high levels of ‘sexual disgust’
Past research on ‘disgust sensitivity’ show it’s linked to political orientation, but the new study is the first to explore exactly how it’s linked to voting behavior.
A new study shows that Americans who voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election tend to report higher levels of sexual disgust, a factor psychologists think could influence how people vote.
The findings, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, are a surprising entry in the growing body of research on how disgust sensitivity interacts with political orientation.
First, why would disgust affect one’s politics?
The answer, according to evolutionary psychology, is deeply rooted. One key function of disgust is to help us avoid diseases by grossing us out when we’re near pathogens. That explains why almost everyone finds certain things repulsive: urine, feces, vomit. These feelings of disgust are part of our behavioral immune system, defined as a group of deeply rooted behaviors that help keep us healthy. Without this system, we might be all too willing to bite into a piece of mold-covered toast, or not wash our hands after going to the bathroom.
Research over the past two decades has shown that people who are easily disgusted are more likely to:
- Support conservative political parties and ideology
- Oppose gay marriage, abortion and immigration
- Strongly condemn moral violations
One common explanation in evolutionary psychology for these effects suggests high disgust sensitivity pushes people toward conservatism because the ideology is more closely aligned with pathogen avoidance than liberalism. One example is opposition to immigration:
Immigrants represent an out-group, and throughout human history contact with foreign groups increased people’s chances of catching a disease. So, the desire to avoid contact with out-groups, ugly as it may be, could be part evolved adaptation, one felt strongly by people high in disgust sensitivity.
That’s one view in the conversation about disgust and politics. But another hypothesis, one based on sexual strategies, seems to better explain the link between disgust sensitivity and conservative ideology. This hypothesis broadly argues that easily disgusted people are more likely to pursue a sexual strategy that’s long term and monogamous, as opposed to a short-term strategy with many sexual partners (and, therefore, many opportunities for contracting a disease).
The researchers suggested this fundamental attitude toward sex might be shaping conservative’s attitudes on political issues.
“Given that support of monogamy and opposition to sexual promiscuity are pillars of conservative ideology, these findings suggest a clear avenue by which disgust sensitivity may develop into a more socially conservative political orientation,” the authors of the new study wrote.
For the study, 585 participants took surveys on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk that recorded their political orientation, voting record, and disgust sensitivity, all of which was approved by the institutional review board of the University of Miami.
The participants completed two surveys to measure disgust sensitivity. One had them rate “how disgusting” they considered concepts in three areas: morals, pathogens, and sex. For morals and pathogens, participants rated how disgusting they considered “seeing some mold on old leftovers in your refrigerator” and “forging someone’s signature on a legal document.” For sex, they rated the disgustingness of things like “performing oral sex,” “watching a pornographic video,” and “bringing someone you just met back to your room to have sex.”
The results showed that sexual disgust was by far the best predictor of whether someone voted conservative.
“...sexual disgust sensitivity fully mediated all effects of the relationship between pathogen disgust sensitivity and social–political orientation, voting behavior, and party affiliation. Altogether, these results are most consistent with the sexual strategies model and sit uneasily with the pathogen-avoidance model. We found no evidence that pathogen disgust predicted any of the three outcome measures used here, independently of sexual disgust.”
The 2016 election was a unique case study for disgust sensitivity, according to the researchers, because Trump’s campaign was marked by explicit anti-immigration sentiment and pathogen-related rhetoric, like using the words “filthy, disgusting,” or saing “there was blood coming out of her wherever”. That’s why it’s surprising that sexual disgust, not pathogen or moral disgust, seemed to be the driving factor behind voting behavior, in terms of disgust sensitivity.
Also surprising were the results among third-party voters:
“...greater sexual disgust increased the odds of affiliating with the Republican Party rather than with the Libertarian Party and of voting for Donald Trump rather than Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson (indeed, inspections of group means for each political party suggest that Libertarians report the least sensitivity to both pathogen and sexual disgust).”
Still, the researchers wrote that theirs is a broad study that didn’t ask participants about specific policy issues. They also mentioned that other recent studies seem to support the idea that pathogen-related disgust significantly impacts views on immigration, and therefore political orientation on a larger scale.
“For these reasons, we certainly would not rule out a role of pathogen avoidance in the formation of some socially conservative positions, immigration foremost among them.”
Broadly, however, the researchers say sexual disgust is influencing our political behaviors on a level we don’t yet understand.
“Whatever the influence of pathogen disgust on particular social issues might turn out to be, the current results suggest that sexual disgust can influence individual political positions strongly enough to affect two of the most crucial political outcomes in our society: the party we align with and the president we vote for.”
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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?
- Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
- Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
- A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses
Dramatic and misleading
Image: Reddit / SICResearch
The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.
Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.
The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.
Let's zoom in:
- It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
- By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
- Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
- In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
- Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
- By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.
Image source: Reddit / SICResearch
This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?
- "The end is near."
- "The idiocracy grows."
- "(It's) like a spreading disease."
- "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
- "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
- "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
- "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
- "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."
Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:
- "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
- "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
- "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
- "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."
"Old people learning to Google"
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)
But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:
- "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
- "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
- "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
- "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."
A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.
The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.
One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.
Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.
It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.
CNN, Fox and MSNBC
Image: Google Trends
CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison
For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):
- Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
- MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
- CNN: 706,000 (-9%)
And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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