A person’s response to badly-smelling body odours is linked to whether they hold right-wing authoritarian views, and can predict if they like President Trump
How disgusting is your boss’s bad breath? Your answer could reveal your political leanings. People with more authoritarian attitudes are more likely to be disgusted by foul-smelling body odours – and the more easily disgusted a person is, the more they are likely to support Donald Trump.
Disgust is a universal human emotion that helps keep us safe from harmful substances, says Jonas Olofsson at Stockholm University in Sweden. Multiple studies have shown that the kind of disgust we experience when we come across something that might carry disease also spreads into other emotions, such as moral disgust. People who are socially conservative, for example, seem to feel disgust more strongly.
Olofsson and his colleagues wondered if a person’s response to smell might reveal their politics. They asked 201 volunteers from around the world to complete an online survey, answering questions about how disgusting they found various hypothetical situations. Some of these involved smell, such as exposure to someone else’s body odour or using a toilet that smelled strongly of urine, while others didn’t, such as being close to someone with red sores covering their arms.
Other questions in the survey measured right wing authoritarianism among the volunteers. These questions asked volunteers to what degree they agreed with authoritarian statements along the lines of “the old-fashioned ways are the best to live by” and “we need a strong leader to deal with an immoral society”.
Olofsson’s team found that people who scored higher for disgust also tended to score more highly for right wing authoritarianism. Compared to visual or other cues, it was a high disgust-response to the thought of body odours that most strongly predicted if a person would rate highly for authoritarianism. The team got the same pattern when they repeated the experiment with 160 volunteers based in the US.
The team then looked at whether a person’s sensitivity to body odour disgust might predict their support for an authoritarian figure, like Donald Trump. They ran their experiment for a third time, one month before the 2016 US presidential election, and asked participants which candidate they supported, and to what degree.
“Those that were most supportive of Donald Trump had the highest body odour disgust sensitivity,” says Olofsson.
The finding supports other research linking social conservatism to disgust sensitivity, says Yoel Inbar at the University of Toronto. “People who are more disgust sensitive are more socially right wing,” he says. He isn’t sure all of those who score highly are necessarily authoritarian, however. “It tells us more about social traditionalism, or whether someone voted Republican or Democrat.”
It’s unlikely that right wing authoritarians have a better sense of smell. “People who react strongly to odours might claim to have a sensitive nose, but when we test them, they are average,” says Olofsson.
The team don’t yet know if political ideology shapes disgust sensitivity or vice versa. “It’s possible both develop in parallel,” says Olofsson. “Both are related to avoidance, whether to new people and ideas or pathogens.”
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