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Why We Use Language of Disgust to Describe Political Foes

A study reveals that many feel physical disgust in response to outgroup members.

Key points

  • On both the right and left in the US, people often use the word "disgusting" to describe their political adversaries.
  • A recent study showed that political outgroup members can elicit not just moral or metaphorical disgust, but also physical disgust.
  • While anger tends to promote conflict between sides, disgust prompts avoidance—possibly making political resolutions harder.

After the New York Times published an op-ed calling Donald Trump “amoral” and “erratic,” his son called the piece “disgusting.” Similarly, when it was reported that Trump had referred to U.S. war casualties as “losers,” Joe Biden called the reported comments “disgusting.” It seems that in the United States, the language of disgust is commonly used to describe political foes, on both the right and the left.

Clay Banks/ Unsplash
Source: Clay Banks/ Unsplash

What should we conclude from these anecdotal observations? Does the use of the word “disgusting” indicate that people feel the same emotion in response to political outgroup members that they feel in response to gross, pathogenic content, such as blood, feces, and rats? Or is “disgusting” used purely metaphorically to reflect an internal state of anger or outrage, rather than any kind of genuine disgust?

What the research says

Across three studies, Dr. Landy, Dr. Rottman, Dr. Leimgruber, and I investigated whether political outgroup members can elicit physical, as opposed to just moral or metaphorical, disgust. We presented over 900 participants with faces of people depicted as Republican or Democrat (either by wearing a shirt that clearly expressed support for one political party or through a description of the person that included that they voted exclusively for one political party). Which faces were presented as Democrats versus Republicans was counterbalanced between participants.

OSPAN ALI/ Unsplash
Source: OSPAN ALI/ Unsplash

We used a variety of measures of disgust and we gave participants other, straightforward ways to express anger, disapproval, and general negativity. In studies 1 and 2, we relied on self-report measures. For example, asking participants how “gross” or “nauseating” they found the faces. In study 3, we analyzed the micro facial expressions that participants spontaneously produced in response to the faces.

We found that participants did feel physical disgust, not just moral or metaphorical disgust, in response to outgroup members. This demonstrates that political foes are considered physically disgusting.

Insights into today's US political division

This new finding is important as it helps provide insights into the increasing division between Republicans and Democrats. With the American congressional elections happening this year, it’s helpful to understand the role of disgust in social and moral evaluations.

More specifically, anger tends to promote aggression, confrontation, and punishment, and it could play an important role in generating political conflict. Disgust, on the other hand, tends to promote withdrawal, rejection, and avoidance, which could underlie unwillingness to engage with political outgroups. Therefore, anger may drive conflict between partisans, and disgust may keep them apart, preventing resolution, and perpetuating disagreements.

The study, “Disgusting Democrats and Repulsive Republicans: Members of Political Outgroups Are Considered Physically Gross,” was published last month in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.