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Can We Thank Hand Sanitizer for the Rise of Conservative Politics?

Liberal v. Conservative: Spit into a cup. Now drink it.

I work for Oberlin College, arguably one of the most politically liberal campuses in the United States.

So I found the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof's piece about the psychological basis of political ideology fascinating. Two aspects of the column sucked me in. First, was the finding that conservatives and moderates could easily predict the responses of liberals to questionnaire items.  But more fascinating was the finding that liberals—especially deep liberals—found the views of conservatives baffling (see the original study here).  

Liberals and conservatives share values, but conservatives value three additional areas

Why the disparity? According to Jonathan Heidt's book The Righteous Mind,  there are six core values that shape our political reactions: caring for the weak, fairness, liberty, loyalty, respect for authority, and sanctity. Liberals' primary values are for the first three: caring for the vulnerable, equity and fair treatment, and freedom from undo constraint by others.

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For liberals, that's it.

Conservatives understand and value all those things; they're important to them too. But they also strongly value loyalty, respect for authority, and (most interesting to me) sanctity. Loyalty and respect for authority tend to balance the importance conservatives place on caring for others and equity with deference to institutions (the family, the church, the police, the military).  

Violation of sanctity—the idea that some things are sacred and should not be defiled—triggers the emotion of disgust. Disgust is "a type of aversion that involves withdrawing from a person or object with strong expressions of revulsion . . . It is one of the basic emotions and is typically associated with things that are regarded as unclean, inedible, infectious, gory or otherwise offensive".  

We push away things that are disgusting. We can't help ourselves, although sometimes we are drawn to them in horror. It isn't something you THINK (a cognitive appraisal) is something you FEEL in your gut.  

Drinking spit is disgusting

Drinking spit is a good example of something that evokes disgust, but doesn't make sense. One of the most effective demonstrations I do on the effective of cognitive categories on beliefs and behaviors involves disgust. I hand out paper cups. I ask students to spit into the cup. Then I tell them to drink it.

It is rare for a student to take me up on it. It feels GROSS. But our emotional reaction doesn't make sense. The spit came out of our mouth. Swallowing it shouldn't matter. But it does. I can make myself do it, but I can also feel my strong emotional aversion to it. If I swallow what is my cup, the class gags.

Conservatives have a stronger disgust reaction

Being reminded of things that are "unclean" always makes us more sensitive to defilment and activates our desire for cleanliness: our "sanctitiy" values. We respond more politically conservatively when filling out questionnaires near hand sanitizer.  

Conservatives tend to react more strongly and have a stronger sense of disgust. (Perhaps this explains Rick Santorum's statement that listening to John Kennedy's speech about the separation of church and state made him want to vomit.)

To the extent that political conservatives have a stronger value on sanctity and react to violations of things they believe to be sacred with disgust and revulsion, they will have a very strong emotional response—a strong GUT, instinctive, revulsion to—that which threatens it.  

It won't make "sense"—it's an emotion. Note here, I am not saying that the belief isn't sensible or isn't right or isn't intellectually defensible. I'm saying that the reason that the beliefs are so strong and emotionally powerful is that they are driven by a deep, instinctive response.  

Conversatives understand liberals.  Liberals don't understand conservatives.  

It's hard to understand someone's disgust for something you don't feel.  Take an example that one of my graduate school professors used in her class on cognitive development: blowing your nose in toilet paper.  

She used taking a clean, new roll of toilet paper, tearing off a piece and blowing your nose in it as an example of things that was "instinctively disgusting" even though it didn't make sense. She argued that it was, of course, a clean piece of paper, untouched by others. It was identical in manufacture to tissues. So blowing your nose in it was just like using a tissue. Except it was disgusting because, of course, that's not what you use toilet paper for.

My buddy, sitting next to me in class, looked at me, puzzled. We both shrugged. It had never occurred to us that there was anything wrong with using toilet paper to blow your nose or that it was in any way gross, or not a normal thing for people to do. We had absolutely NO disgust reaction.  

Half the class agreed with us. The other half looked at us like we had just pulled a small, squashed animal off the bottom of our shoe (did I get you with that one?).  

(I imagine half the people reading this piece will agree with me and the other half being repulsed.  THAT'S THE POINT!)

The class argued. We could not understand each other emotionally, although intellectually I could understand the other "revolted" group's reasoning. But it didn't make sense to me.  (We all understand the example with the cup of spit.)

According to Haidt, liberals and conservatives are like that. Conservatives understand the values that liberals hold, although they define some of them somewhat differently. But liberals do not understand the values of conservatives. They just don't make sense to them. It seems IRRATIONAL. It's hard to understand an emotion that has no resonance with you.

And until liberals understand conservatives, the two extremes are not arguing on the same political ground.

Interesting.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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