People who react strongly against body odour are more likely than others to prefer living in a dictatorship.
The survey-based study, led by psychologist Jonas Olofsson of Stockholm University, set out to measure levels of disgust experienced when confronted by body odour and see how they correlate with attitudes towards despotism.
To find out, an online survey was created. The first part of the exercise asked participants to rate on a specially designed scale their reactions to their own and other people’s body odours. The second asked them to respond to questions designed to elicit political views.
The researchers found there was a strong correlation between being easily disgusted by the smells of sweat and urine, and support for authoritarian regimes.
“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’,” says Olofsson.
The scientists suggest that the linkage between body odour and dictatorship may have a deep-rooted evolutionary basis.
Disgust, they point out, is a protective behaviour – it prompts individuals to move away from suspected dangerous or infectious materials. This may translate into a preference for a society wherein different types of people are kept apart from each other.
“That type of society reduces contact among different groups and, at least in theory, decreases the chance of becoming ill,” says Olofsson.
The study is by no means the first to indicate that disgust reactions can condition responses in circumstances not immediately related to avoiding potential pathogens.
There was, for instance, a study published in 2017 exploring rather rare psychological syndrome known as trypophobia, described as “an aversion towards clusters of roughly circular shapes”. Sufferers react badly to visual stimuli such as sponges and bubbles on the surface of coffee.
Researchers led by Tom Kupfer from the University of Kent in the UK theorised that the syndrome arises from misplaced disgust – an adverse reaction based on an ancient evolutionary response to the signs of parasites or infectious disease.
Another 2017 paper came up with findings very much in harmony with those presented by Olofsson and colleagues.
Researchers from West Virginia University in the US, led by psychologist Shelby Boggs, explored the notion that greater disgust sensitivity and social conservatism were linked.
Across three separate studies, the team found that “individuals higher in disgust sensitivity were more likely to endorse a dangerous worldview and socially conservative values”.
In the jargon, “dangerous worldview” means holding the opinion that the world is a dangerous place, rather than having ideas that, if implemented, would raise the risk of conflict or war. The two positions, however, are not mutually exclusive.
Although causation remains unproven, Boggs and his team felt their evidence indicated that disgust levels directly influenced socially conservative positions.
The latest research did not address the concept of “dangerous worldview” directly, but inferences can certainly be drawn.
“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,” reveals Olofsson.
“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.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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