People who are easily disgusted by slime, gore, and even crawly insects are more apt to be politically conservative. So what is the contemporary role of disgust?

CORNELL (US)—People who are easily disgusted by slime, gore, and even crawly insects are more apt to be politically conservative than their less squeamish counterparts, especially when it comes to attitudes toward gays and lesbians, a new Cornell University study finds.

The results 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, says David Pizarro, assistant professor of psychology.

Results of the study show that people who have a negative sensitivity to unpleasant or gross situations, also have a negative sensitivity to gay marriage and abortion.

Liberals and conservatives disagree about whether disgust has a valid place in making moral judgments, Pizarro notes. Conservatives argue 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.

Studying the link between disgust and moral judgment can help explain the strong differences in people’s moral opinions, Pizarro says, and it can offer strategies for persuading some to change their views.

“People have pointed out for a long time that a lot of our moral values seem driven by emotion, and in particular, disgust appears to be one of those emotions that seems to be recruited for moral judgments,” says Pizarro.

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

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