A surprising study has found that people who are easily disgusted by strong odors like sweat or urine tend to prefer more authoritarian leaders, and it might all have a lot to do with diseases.

Image credits: Hanna Esser.

Disgust is a basic emotion, and it was a very important tool for survival over countless generations. Disgust is basically a way of saying “I’ll have none of that,” and it’s most commonly related to nasty smells or foods.

Just think about someone being disgusted — it has a lot to do with a person’s senses. The nose is wrinkled or turned away, the eyes partially or entirely closed. The whole body is shutting down its sensorial information, and for a good reason: many things that are disgusting are rotten, dirty, or infectious — you don’t want to be near them, and you certainly don’t want to smell or eat them. Disgust is useful largely because it helps you avoid potential diseases, but different people have different tolerance levels.

Researchers had an idea that there would be a connection between how people are disgusted by smell and how they want their country to be led. The idea is that people who have a strong urge to avoid unpleasant smells would also avoid mingling with other groups of people such as immigrants. They would be against multiculturalism and would fall towards the authoritarian side of the political spectrum, researchers suspected. They were right.

‘There was a solid connection between how strongly someone was disgusted by smells and their desire to have a dictator-like leader who can supress radical protest movements and ensure that different groups “stay in their places”. That type of society reduces contact among different groups and, at least in theory, decreases the chance of becoming ill’, says Jonas Olofsson, who researches scent and psychology at Stockholm University and is one of the authors of the study.

Among other questions, researchers asked international participants to rate their levels of disgust for body odors, both their own and others and then gauged their political preferences, looking for correlations.

While seeming completely unrelated, the connection between smell and politic inclinations does make a lot of sense. After all, if disgust is a means of isolating yourself from unwanted, potentially dangerous, then people who are more easily disgusted might also want to be more isolated from other people which they consider as potentially dangerous. Isolationism and a negative attitude towards immigrants and different groups of people is a trademark of authoritarian governments. Still, it’s remarkable that such a clear correlation can be established between odors and ideology.

’Understanding the shared variance between basic emotional reactivity to potential pathogen cues such as body odours and ideological attitudes that can lead to aggression towards groups perceived as deviant can prompt future investigations on what are the emotional determinants of outgroup derogation. In the next future, this knowledge might inform policies to prevent ethnocentrism’ says Marco Tullio Liuzza from Magna Graecia University of Catanzaro, Italy, also one of the authors.

US participants who were easily disgusted by smells were more likely to vote for Trump — which perfectly fits the theory. Image credits: Gage Skidmore.

Notably, researchers also added an extra question for US participants: how they will vote in the 2016 presidential election. Since Donald Trump ticks the boxes for authoritarianism, he was an excellent example to test the theory. Lo and behold, people who dislike bodily odors the most were more likely to vote for Trump.

This is interesting because Trump himself has often said that other people disgust him physically, and is reportedly obsessed with hygiene.

‘It showed that people who were more disgusted by smells were also more likely to vote for Donald Trump than those who were less sensitive. We thought that was interesting because Donald Trump talks frequently about how different people disgust him. He thinks that women are disgusting and that immigrants spread disease and it comes up often in his rhetoric. It fits with our hypothesis that his supporters would be more easily disgusted themselves’, says Jonas Olofsson.

This seems to suggest that authoritarian beliefs are heavily ingrained in some people’s brains, similarly to smell preferences.

‘The research has shown that the beliefs can change. If contact is created between groups, authoritarians can change. It’s not carved in stone. Quite the opposite, beliefs can be updated when we learn new things.’

However, Jonas Olofsson is optimistic. The most important thing is to keep a communication channel between opposing groups, and change can happen, he says.

‘The research has shown that the beliefs can change. If contact is created between groups, authoritarians can change. It’s not carved in stone. Quite the opposite, beliefs can be updated when we learn new things.’

Journal Reference: Liuzza et al. Body odour disgust sensitivity predicts authoritarian attitudes.

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