Disgust and Democrats.

Yesterday's New York Times contained an interesting article by a couple of psychologists detailing some experiments they've done on the political effects of disgust:

In an experiment conducted recently by Erik Helzer, a Cornell Ph.D. student, and one of us (David Pizarro), merely standing near a hand-sanitizing dispenser led people to report more conservative political beliefs. Participants who were randomly positioned in front of a hand sanitizer gave more conservative responses to a survey about their moral, social and fiscal attitudes than those individuals assigned to complete the questionnaire at the other end of the hallway.

In another experiment one of us (Dr. Pizarro) was involved in, a foul ambient smell — emitted, unbeknownst to test subjects, by a novelty spray — caused people answering a questionnaire to report more negative attitudes toward gay men than did people who responded in the absence of the stench. Apparently, the slightest signal that germs might be present is enough to shift political attitudes toward the right.

I can't imagine that John Boehner and Mitch McConnell actually want Americans to walk around feeling disgusted, but hey'll probably take it if it works. When I read this I was reminded of some research on Terror Management Theory, which concerns how people deal with the fear of death. One experiment found that reminding people of the possibility of their own deaths led to an increase in support for President Bush.

Here's my question: Where is the visceral, lizard-brain emotion which, when activated, increases support for Democrats?

-- Paul Waldman

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