Hitler appeared to have been highly sensitive to disgust, and research shows this trait is linked to numerous dimensions of ideology.
Hitler seemed obsessed with the idea of infection. The Nazi leader was, by most accounts, a germaphobe who avoided personal contact and bathed incessantly. He was repelled by sex, horrified by venereal disease. He referred to himself as an Einsiedler – a hermit. He extolled the virtues of celibacy and claimed prostitution was for inferior races, though some have proposed Hitler himself contracted syphilis from a Jewish prostitute in Vienna in 1908.
It was in ideology, however, where Hitler's obsession with infection thrived, becoming the essential Nazi metaphor: Germany was the body, Jews were the parasites.
Examples are abundant in his speeches and writings:
“How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus! We shall regain our health only be eliminating the Jew.”
“Anyone who wants to cure this era, which is inwardly sick and rotten, must first of all summon up the courage to make clear the causes of this disease.”
“This is the battle against a veritable world sickness which threatens to infect the peoples, a plague that devastates whole peoples...an international pestilence.”
“The Jew is a parasite in the body of other nations.”
“Germany, without blinking an eyelid, for whole decades admitted these Jews by the hundred thousand. But now… when the nation is no longer willing to be sucked dry by these parasites, on every side one hears nothing but laments.”
“If this battle should not come...Germany would decay and at best sink to ruin like a rotting corpse.”
Do Hitler's germaphobic tendencies and obsession with the infection metaphor reveal anything about his personality traits? While it's impossible to know for sure, it seems likely that he was highly sensitive to disgust.
Over the past couple of decades, studies have linked disgust sensitivity to numerous dimensions of ideology – immigration, political affiliation, sense of justice. If Hitler ranked high on the disgust scale, there were probably deeply rooted psychological forces lurking underneath his xenophobia and murderous fantasies that research on the behavioral immune system might help bring to light.
How disgust relates to personality and ideology
Disgust is a protective emotion. It causes us to lurch back from a rotten apple, or take an extra big step over 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 an acute sense of disgust can extend beyond these things and into the social world, causing some to feel repulsed by certain ethnic groups. This might have once served an evolutionary function: In earlier times, it was probably useful to be wary of unfamiliar individuals or groups because they might have carried disease.
Today, this same evolutionary function might be playing a role in the immigration debate. According to a recent paper, people who are acutely sensitive to disgust are more likely to oppose immigration. The researchers explained:
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.
Other studies have linked high disgust sensitivity to:
Hitler arguably qualifies for almost every dimension to which high disgust sensitivity is linked. Professor of Psychology Jordan Peterson elaborates on the connection between disgust and Nazism in the video below, about an hour into the lecture:
Still, how could one leader's disgust-oriented rhetoric have influenced an entire country?
Metaphor and the Final Solution
The Jew is the parasite of humanity. He can be a parasite for an individual person, a social parasite for whole peoples, and the world parasite of humanity. – Excerpt from "The Jew as World Parasite," a Nazi propaganda pamphlet
The use of metaphoric language in Nazi Germany has been studied at length since the end of World War II. On a psychological level, the dehumanization of the Jewish population through language was crucial in carrying out the Final Solution because deeming the Jews to be rats or parasites made extermination the logical and “necessary” course of action.
(A Nazi propaganda video compares the Jewish population to rats and parasites)
Some have considered the Nazi use of metaphorical language to be a “rhetorical trick,” a cynical manipulation of the cultural conversation to advance a murderous fantasy. But others, like Andreas Mulsoff, who penned Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust, thought Hitler’s parasite metaphor sat at the bedrock of his ideology, conveying his “fundamental cognitive processes” and serving as an “integral part of the ideology that made the holocaust happen.”
In his essay The Jewish Parasite, Alex Bein argues that Nazi ideology captivated the German people through repeated use of words and concepts that eventually led to “belief in the reality of a fantasy.” Richard A. Koenigsberg, author of the seminal Hitler's Ideology, elaborated:
“In language, Bein explains, thoughts and conceptions are mirrored. Nazism crept into the flesh and blood of the masses by means of “single words, terms and phrases, and stock expressions” which, imposed upon the people a million times over in continuous reiteration, were “mechanically and unconsciously absorbed by them.” The presentation of Jews as corroding and poison parasites as vermin, bacteria and bacilli—everywhere infecting and striving to destroy the body of the German people— “paralyzed any internal resistance on the part of the masses.””
(Anti-Semetic Nazi propaganda)
A recent study suggests that disgust-oriented language can wield surprising power over our biases. Researchers Lene Aaroe, Michael Bang Petersen and Kevin Arceneaux asked two groups of participants to read a passage about a hospital employee coming in contact with bodily fluids. The passage given to one group, however, included an addition part in which the hospital employee thoroughly washes his hands. Anti-immigration sentiment dropped by 47 percent among this group, leading researchers to claim:
[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.
The findings imply that threats of actual infection need not be present in order for our sense of disgust to unconsciously affect how we see groups of people. Mere language can accomplish that.
A study suggests that countries with a high prevalence of parasites are likely to have authoritarian governments.
The psychological threat of parasites could be causing people to give rise to authoritarian governments, according to a growing body of radical and controversial research.
It might sound like science fiction, but it’s not that far fetched once you become familiar with parasite-stress theory.
Parasite-stress theory argues that the parasites and diseases encountered by humans over time have shaped our behavioral immune system, which is a suite of psychological mechanisms that allows us to detect and avoid pathogenic organisms. According to the theory, people who live in areas infested with parasites are more likely to think and behave in ways that minimize their risk of infection, including being less open to strangers and less extraverted.
For the interactive map, click here. Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.
Explanations for the causes of authoritarian governments often include exploitable natural resources, economic inequality, lack of culture, or the ramifications of colonial withdrawal. But the more scientists learn about how parasite prevalence affects psychology, the more these explanations seem incomplete.
In 2013, researchers Damian R. Murray, Mark Schaller and Peter Suedfeld conducted a study based on parasite-stress theory that examined the relationship between parasite prevalence and authoritarianism in countries. The authors explained their reasoning:
“Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk. Individuals who openly dissented from, or simply failed to conform to, these behavioral traditions therefore posed a health threat to self and others.”
(Photo: Getty Images)
The authors said that authoritarian tendencies in individuals serve a self-protective function, and these tendencies can temporarily increase when threats become psychologically salient. They noted that individuals who perceive the threat of infectious disease tend to:
(Photo: John Moore)
The results of the study showed strong correlations between parasite prevalence and authoritarianism – both at the state and individual level.
However, the key question was whether individuals with authoritarian traits brought on by parasite prevalence were, in some way, causing their governments to become authoritarian. So the researchers ran four mediation analyses using a bootstrapping procedure to find out. All four tests indicated that individuals were giving rise to and sustaining authoritarian governments.
“These results are consistent with the logical implications of the parasite stress hypothesis, and are inconsistent with an alternative explanation suggesting that the correlation between disease prevalence and authoritarianism is based solely on colonial establishment of state-level institutions,” referring to the possibility that the statistical relationship might be explained by the fact that colonial powers tended to set up long-lasting political institutions in low-parasite areas.
The results beg the question: Could authoritarian governments be eliminated over time by eliminating infectious diseases?
Some have questioned the study, but scientists continue to conduct research based on parasite-stress theory. Their studies have demonstrated statistical relationships between the prevalence of parasites and:
New research out of the University of London shows that some viruses are more likely to kill men than women. Here's why.
Some viruses are more likely to kill men than women. That's the finding from a 2016 study in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers from the University of London looked at how oral Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) infections were more likely to turn into terminal throat cancer in “Japanese men than women, while it is equally likely in Caribbean women and men," according to the study.
Viruses like HPV spread through replication, copying themselves inside a host body and passing those copies to new hosts via bodily fluids. Viruses do that in two ways: vertically, from mother to child via breastfeeding or live birth, or; horizontally, between sexual partners. Either transmission method makes the host sick, and “that's not something a pathogen particularly sets out to do," study co-author Vincent Jansen told New Scientist. “It's shooting itself in the foot." Meaning, if the host becomes too ill, their body may redirect all resources toward fighting the spread of the virus rather than simply passing it on.
That's not what a virus wants. So they find ways around it — namely, identifying and treating host bodies differently. “Females, but not males, provide an additional route of transmission," the study explains, noting that “women can pass infections to their children during pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding," in addition to horizontal transmission through sexual intercourse, study authors Jansen and Francisco Úbeda told New Scientist. By simulating the spread of the Human T-cell Lymphotropic Virus Type 1 (HTLV-1) via mathematical models for both men and women, the researchers saw the virus displaying “an evolutionary pressure" on women “to be less harmful to them," New Scientist reports. Here's how the study summarizes it:
Natural selection favours pathogens causing differential mortality in men and women when they are horizontally and vertically transmitted. In particular, pathogens are expected to evolve a degree of male virulence equal to that of pathogens in a population without vertical transmission and a degree of female virulence lower than that of pathogens in a population without vertical transmission.
Basically, if the host has an opportunity to spread a virus in more than one way, it's too valuable to attack full on.
An additional theory about the discrepancy of the spread is “because women breastfeed their babies more commonly and for longer in Japan — giving the virus more opportunity to enter another host" Jansen told New Scientist. Yet Sabra Klein of Johns Hopkins also told New Scientist that this assumption “ignore[s] other variables – such as ethnicity or culture – that could also be involved" in the virus' spread.
More importantly, as New Scientist reports, “The study emphasises the need to conduct clinical trials in both sexes, rather than predominantly in men as is often the case, says David Duneau, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Toulouse, France. “The parasites themselves are behaving differently in males and females, so we need to know what they do in both sexes. The researchers agree with that, writing “one of the reasons why a sex-specific treatment has not been implemented is that the causes of sex-differences in virulence are not well understood" in the study.
The researchers also aren't sure how the viruses know the sex of the host, but “there are all sorts of hormonal and other pathways that are slightly different between men and women," Jansen says. Once they figure that out, they they could treat viral infections in the future by tricking it. “We could try to make the virus think it's in a female body rather than a male body and therefore take a different course of action," Jansen told New Scientist.
The findings may prove to be helpful for the spread of other viruses, as HTLV-1 is far from the only one to kill men more often than women, according to New Scientist:
Men infected with tuberculosis are 1.5 times more likely to die than women; men infected with human papillomavirus are five times more likely to develop cancer than women; and men infected with Epstein-Barr virus are at least twice as likely to develop Hodgkin's lymphoma as women.