Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Easily Grossed Out? You Might Be A Conservative!

Easily Grossed Out? You Might Be A Conservative! (6/5/09)
Are you someone who squirms when confronted with slime, shudders at stickiness or gets grossed out by gore? Do crawly insects make you cringe or dead bodies make you blanch?

If so, chances are you're more conservative -- politically, and especially in your attitudes toward gays and lesbians -- than your less-squeamish counterparts, according to two Cornell studies.

The results, said study leader David Pizarro, Cornell assistant professor of psychology, raise questions about the role of disgust -- an emotion that likely evolved in humans to keep them safe from potentially hazardous or disease-carrying environments -- in contemporary judgments of morality and purity.

This press release doesn't explain how the link between conservatism and feelings of disgust is based, at least in part, on theories of an academic in Virginia named Jonathan Haidt.

I've written about this guy before: Moral neuropolitics and ideology. His pet theory is that morality in general arises out of several human characteristics that can be explained by evolutionary psychology (EP). While it is true that EP can be taken too far in "explaining" human nature, I think it also has a lot of validity and if used carefully it can give real scientific explanations for some things.

The problem I have with Haidt's theories is not because of EP. Rather it's because he singles out three evolved traits that he believes influence conservative theories of morality yet are generally disregarded in liberal theories. One of these traits is a serious concern about "purity" – which sort of means an aversion to "disgusting" things, without an attempt to provide reasonable justification for the feeling in specific situations (such as homosexuality).

Haidt thinks this suggests liberal theories of morality are inadequate. I think that he's wrong. It does not seem to me that just because a trait evolved in humans (when social and physical conditions were vastly different from those of the present) it follows that such traits should be important influences on morality under current conditions.

Further, not only are these inherited traits unreliable guides for moral theories, but they are insufficient to provide good foundations for moral principles that are important in modern conditions – such as concern for the welfare of the environment, aversion to warfare, and the need for limitations on exploitative behavior of elites. However, all this is a discussion for another time.

Returning to the research described at the top, it's reassuring that the investigators shared my concerns about the role of "purity" in moral judgment:
Liberals and conservatives disagree about whether disgust has a valid place in making moral judgments, Pizarro noted. Conservatives have argued that there is inherent wisdom in repugnance; that feeling disgusted about something -- gay sex between consenting adults, for example -- is cause enough to judge it wrong or immoral, even lacking a concrete reason. Liberals tend to disagree, and are more likely to base judgments on whether an action or a thing causes actual harm. ...

The research speaks to a need for caution when forming moral judgments, Pizarro added. "Disgust really is about protecting yourself from disease; it didn't really evolve for the purpose of human morality," he said. "It clearly has become central to morality, but because of its origins in contamination and avoidance, we should be wary about its influences."

Further reading:

Conservatives Are More Easily Disgusted (6/4/09) –

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Blogger Joseph said...

I suspect the researchers would have found the opposite if they had asked about touching depleted uranium or food grown with DDT.

7/14/2009 09:05:00 PM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

That could be. However, the things you mention have known relationships with controversial political issues.

On the other hand, the research, as I understand it, rated "disgust" with respect to non-political experiences such as slimy stuff, excrement, dead bodies, etc.

The questions about political opinions didn't count in rating disgust sensitivity - yet there was a correlation with political orientation anyway.

7/15/2009 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Rebeca said...

In Psychology Today, Gad Saad responds to Sharon Begley's article on evo psyc in Newsweek. One of Saad's points is that many evo psyc models incorporate contingent behavioral strategies, the "it depends" mode of explanation. I wonder though. If the claims of evolutionary psychology are given credence by identifying them in cross-cutural, transhistoric universal patterns of behavior, how can we know that the variations in behavior are the result of an "it depends" hardwiring or socio-cultural development?

Sharon Begley has just written an article in Newsweek wherein she castigates the field of evolutionary psychology (EP) using the same antiquated and perfectly erroneous set of criticisms that have been addressed by evolutionary psychologists on endless occasions. If cats have nine lives then critics of evolutionary psychology à la Ms. Begley have infinite lives.

7/29/2009 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger Charles Daney said...

Thanks for the information on that response in Psychology Today.

I wrote a response to the Newsweek article on this blog - here

I also got into an extended discussion on that Newsweek article with Massimo Pigliucci (who was quoted in the article) on Facebook. It can be found here - dated June 21, 2009.

7/29/2009 12:01:00 PM  

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