Scientists suggest authoritarian attitudes may be partly rooted in biological urge to avoid catching diseases from unfamiliar people
People who have a greater tendency to turn their nose up at the whiff of urine, sweat and other body odours are more likely to have rightwing authoritarian attitudes, research suggests.
The study also found having a greater disgust for body odours was linked, albeit to a small degree, with support for Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate.
The team say the findings support the idea that a feeling of disgust might partly underpin social discrimination against others, with the link rooted in a primitive urge to avoid catching diseases from unfamiliar people or environments.
“We think that authoritarian attitudes might, at least in part, be rooted in biology,” said Dr Jonas Olofsson, co-author of the research from Stockholm University and the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study.
But, he stressed, feelings of disgust are not immutable. “Even though disgust is a very primitive emotion that is definitely rooted in our biological survival, it can still be altered,” he said.
Olofsson said his team were keen to explore whether the response of individuals towards scenarios linked to scent alone revealed a similar association.
“We think that olfaction might be at the root of the pathogen detection system, so body odour disgust might be the most primitive, most fundamental way to detect pathogens,” he said.
Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Olofsson and colleagues report how they explored the issue across three experiments, involving a total of more than 750 participants recruited online.
Participants were presented with questionnaires on a number of topics, including their degree of social, fiscal and moral liberalism and their level of disgust towards pathogens – assessed by asking participants to rate on a seven point scale their response to phrases such as “sitting next to someone who has red sores on their arm”.
They were also asked to rate on a scale how disgusted they were by a collection of statements linked to body odours such as “You are sitting next to a friend and notice that your feet smell strongly,” and how emphatically they agreed with 15 statements linked to rightwing authoritarianism such as “Our country needs a powerful leader, in order to destroy the radical and immoral currents prevailing in society today.”
In addition, one group of participants was also asked to respond to a series of statements designed to gauge how much they supported five of the 2016 US presidential candidates, including Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The results reveal that rightwing authoritarianism was linked to a feeling of repulsion towards body odours, and that the link also underpinned a weak association between such feelings of disgust and support for Donald Trump.
In addition, the studies showed that levels of body odour disgust showed a stronger link to authoritarianism than levels of disgust at the possibility of catching a bug. However, while body odour disgust was linked to rightwing authoritarianism, it was not linked to other measures of political conservatism – although the authors note that could be down to the nature of the questions.
“Our results show that about 10% of authoritarianism – ie how people vary in this regard – could be explained by their body odour disgust sensitivity,” explained Olofsson. About 2% of Trump support could be explained by how disgusted people were by the thought of body odours, he said.
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The findings, Olofsson noted, mean that it is not possible to accurately assess a person’s authoritarianism, or their political preference, based on their responses to body odour. “The effects are subtle,” he said..
Roger Giner-Sorolla, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent who was not involved in the study, said the research tied in with previous studies suggesting people who are sensitive to physical disgust are also more intolerant of lower-status social groups.
The focus on body odour disgust, he added, was interesting. “This supports a more directly social origin for this kind of prejudice – as Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier, ‘that is what we were taught – the lower classes smell’,” he said. “This adds to the evolutionary account that prejudice makes use of disgust because people outside one’s group carry unfamiliar diseases.”