Evolution has trained your mind to create in-groups and out-groups in a flash—but the lines are more flexible than you think.
Oxytocin is sometimes marketed as a wonder hormone. This “trust molecule,” which acts a neurotransmitter in your brain, plays a role in mother-child bonding and is implicated in helping promote empathy and generosity. It is especially popular in modern lore for its role in sex: the “love hormone” is stimulated when hugging, kissing, and copulating. It is also delivered via breast milk, hushing the aggravated infant in a flood of chemical bliss.
Enter clever salespeople. Oxytocin-based perfumes hit the market with the promise of attracting mates. But there’s a problem. Yes, oxytocin is a wonderful bonding agent for lovers and within communities. Yet oxytocin plays an equally powerful role in negatively assessing anyone from the other side of your tracks.
As neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky writes in Behave, regarding a study featuring economic games in which volunteers could cooperate with others to even the financial playing field or attempt to play their fellow participants’ altruism against them to maximize profits:
When playing against strangers, oxytocin decreases cooperation, enhances envy when luck is bad, and enhances gloating when it’s good.
Hormones, he continues, rarely act outside of their environment—and human behavior is completely interwoven with their environment, as Sapolsky spends over 700 pages detailing. As our biology dictates, exposure is the necessary ingredient. Vaccines steel your body against potential dangers in your future. This should translate externally, though Sapolsky writes—a chapter from Behave is excerpted on Nautilus—exposure to other cultures, which should steel you from present (and future) xenophobia, sometimes has the opposite effect.
History is full of examples of genocides and inhuman torture waged on out-groups; Sapolsky simplifies the terms by using the Us/Them designation. He cites one study that took place at train stations in predominantly white suburbs. A group of commuters were asked their views on immigration. For the next two weeks, a pair of conservatively dressed, well-mannered young Mexicans began using their platform. After two weeks those same commuters filled out another questionnaire.
Remarkably, the presence of such pairs made people more supportive of decreasing legal immigration from Mexico and making English the official language, and more opposed to amnesty for undocumented immigrants (without changing attitudes about Asian-Americans, African-Americans or Middle Easterners).
Sapolsky chalks this up to a bubbling conscious awareness of “subterranean forces” in our implicit biases. We have an immediate revulsion to certain foods, ideologies, and people, rooted in the environment we were raised and live within. Only later do we attempt to consciously explore the reasons we feel the way we do, often ignorant of forces simmering beneath the surface.
Think legal immigration to the States from Mexico is a good thing? I’ll rate it six out of ten. Suddenly they’ve infiltrated my neighborhood! Make that a three.
Observing unconscious patterns of behavior is what makes science work. One 2010 study of 11 prime-time television shows, like Grey's Anatomy and Scrubs, resulted in an observation that white actors behave more positively to other white actors than black actors—even in shows that promote racial equality. This was revealed through telling facial expressions and body language signals hidden in plain sight.
Ironically, Sapolsky writes, the concept of race is a fluid one. There is no clear lasting demarcation of race or ethnicity that stands up in every culture. This even extends to a perceived rendering of our primate past. He opens the chapter through an anecdote from 1968’s Planet of the Apes, in which the actors who played chimps and the actors who play gorillas ate lunch separately, regardless of what ethnicity each actor was from.
Today we love Japanese tea ceremonies—I can’t find a coffee shop in Los Angeles that hasn’t added matcha to their menu. When I was born in the seventies, however, Japanese cars were avoided at any cost because real cars are “Made in America.” I learned how to drive with a 1979 Ford truck.
Even standards of white are fluid. As Sapolsky notes, not long ago southern Italians and northern Europeans were classified differently in America. Having one-eighth African blood meant you were not white in Florida. Today the facade of Them to me, as an Angeleno, is supposed to be any non-college-educated supporter of Roy Moore. The in-group bias of whiteness is further divided along class and ideological lines, hinting at the dynamic seesaw cultural affiliations really exist along.
This psychological phenomenon even extends to the invisible. I’ve been informed numerous times that “it doesn’t matter what god you believe in, so long as you believe in something.” This would imply that having faith in a deity whose sole aim is to murder everyone with less than 98 percent European blood is better than being an atheist who strives to live a life dictated by compassion and charity for everyone.
Given how influential our imaginative perception of reality can influence our daily actions, it’s no surprise that seemingly benign external influences impact our philosophies. Sapolsky writes that “Them-ing” is an emotional, automatic process easily unconsciously manipulated:
Show subjects slides about some obscure country; afterward, they will have more negative attitudes toward the place if, between slides, pictures of faces with expressions of fear appeared at subliminal speeds. Sitting near smelly garbage makes people more socially conservative about outgroup issues (e.g., attitudes toward gay marriage among heterosexuals). Christians express more negative attitudes toward non-Christians if they’ve just walked past a church.
Finally, there’s the romanticized past that never really occurred. In America, that’s the dreamt-up golden era of the fifties, a time truly run by a small population of white men in government, media, and business, well before the cultural upwelling exhibited by the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements. All of these factors have created a fractured nation that’s being promoted (and influenced by) our technological ease of communication.
Human violence has long been tempered by culture. The rise of city-states meant that large groups had to learn how to get along for the first time in our evolutionary history. For most of time beforehand, smaller bands sufficed to fend off the forces of nature (and other tribes). Technology never truly progressed until thousands, then tens of thousands, on up to tens of millions of people started sharing an identity under the localized umbrella of metropolises. Each step of the way we’ve tried to implement ethical guidelines to make us a better species.
Our moral work is nowhere near done, though we mustn’t lose sight of the progress we’ve made. For Sapolsky, the following four steps will help mitigate the outdated biological mandate we’ve been evolved with to implicitly label anything outgroup.
Contact. While it doesn’t always work (Mexicans on a train platform), Sapolsky writes that if contact is lengthy, something approaching the vaccine hypothesis will take root. This is an infinitely better option than not making contact at all.
Approaching the implicit. Showing people their implicit biases, as well as offering counter-stereotypes, opens the door for empathy. Not everyone will walk through, but you increase the odds they will by making their biases explicit.
Replace essentialism. No one is born with anything completely unique to their race, especially when it comes to this or that group inherently having more or less of something. If given the same socioeconomic opportunities, the playing field is truly even. Time to put that reality into action.
Flatten hierarchies. Too many character biases exist due to our stunning economic hierarchies. Even that playing field, and those assumptions too will fade.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
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.
How easily grossed out are you? Your sensitivity to disgust reveals more about you than you'd probably be comfortable with, from how you'll vote in this election to your potential to be a cold-blooded killer.
Who do you think has a stronger stomach: a liberal or a conservative? Who is the tougher party?
The knee-jerk answer to this question might lean toward the latter, because conservative political ideologies – on the whole – are perceived by both sides as taking a harder line. But what brain circuits are stirring beneath those hardline decisions?
An international team of researchers conducted two studies (involving more than 31,000 people in total) and found a positive relationship between sensitivity to disgust and political conservatism. "Across both samples, contamination disgust, which reflects a heightened concern with interpersonally transmitted disease and pathogens, was most strongly associated with conservatism," the study reports.
Disgust is a sliding scale, and we’re all grossed out by different things. Some of us shudder at the thought of seeing blood. Some draw the line at foul smells. There are people who are disgusted by homosexuality and there are people are disgusted by homophobia. And there are a few groups who have almost no sensitivity to disgust at all.
Science journalist Kathleen McAuliffe knows a lot about disgust. She took us on a wonderful tour of parasites here, and in the video above she tackles the link between visceral disgust and moral disgust. It’s hard for the average person to fathom how someone can decide to kill in cold blood, and also physically carry out the act. But research has found that cold-blooded killers have damage to the brain circuits involved in the disgust response, which explains why these people are less squeamish about not just the moral quandary of taking a life but are also quite comfortable carrying out the grizzly act.
McAuliffe points to another group of individuals who have similarly impaired disgust circuits: people with Huntington’s disease. This is a genetically transmitted neurodegenerative disease, and those with it are unable to recognize expressions of disgust in others, and don’t tend to react to foul smells, sights or tastes. People with Huntington’s also have impaired fear recognition, as the two areas are closely related in the brain.
Which brings us back to conservative political ideologies, particularly immigration aversion. McAuliffe notes that there is a link between germophobia and xenophobia, as evidenced by a study of 2000 Danish people and 1200 Americans, where the data showed that opposition to immigration increased in direct proportion to the disgust sensitivity of the individual.
If you want to see where you sit on the disgust sensitivity scale, there’s a quiz for your amusement over here.
Kathleen McAuliffe's book is This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society.