A Little Speculation About Disgust Sensitivity and Attitudes Towards Homosexuals and People of Other Races


What Is Disgust?

Disgust is an emotion and a corresponding aversive reaction that serves to protect us from disease and contamination. A clear indication of this is that we are the most disgusted by things and situations that may lead to contamination – infected wounds, feces, blood, rotten food (or rotten anything), people with bad hygiene, mice, fleas or other animals know to spread disease.

Since disgust has such an obvious function and is found in every known culture, as well as being expressed in exactly the same way in around the world, we have every reason to believe that it is an evolutionary trait. And as psychologist Jonathan Haidt and many before him have pointed out, disgust has likely evolved from a simple reaction to pathogens into a foundation for moral judgments – the filthy person isn’t just somebody who needs a shower. This wider range of disgust is shown in the additional dimensions of sexual and moral disgust in which the reaction isn’t primarily a protection against contamination but against other dangers having to do with survival and reproduction.

Correlates to Personality

In other words, disgust seems to be a wide personality trait, and like any other such trait it shows a great deal of individual variation. Research has found disgust to be linked to Neuroticism with a correlation around 0.45, which makes sense since it is an emotional reaction. Other than that it shows pretty modest correlations of around 0.3 to HEXACO Honesty-Humility. So there is a case for viewing disgust sensitivity as a fundamental personality factor along with Haidt’s other moral foundations. Which I suspect would be a great substitute for the Big Five, but that’s another story.

Correlates to Social Attitudes.

Psychologists theorize that disgust should be directed at strangers more than familiar people. This would be due to the fact that humans have lived in small groups that were likely to share diseases, pathogens and immunities. But members of outgroups could easily introduce completely new pathogens that the group had no protection against. If this is true, then people who score high on disgust sensitivity should also have a more negative attitude towards various outgroups. Research has shown this to be true: people who are easily disgusted have more negative attitudes towards for instance foreigners, disabled people and homosexuals. Disgust sensitivity has also been linked to various measures of political and religious conservatism. One study by psychologist John Terrizzi and colleagues at the Virginia Commonwealth University showed correlations in the range of 0.33-0.49 whereas measures of conservatism unrelated to the idea of contamination, like minimum wage and health care, showed negligible correlations.  At the same time, inducing disgust has also been shown to increase ingroup favouritism and outgroup hostility which suggests that a lot more than those who are easily disgusted can become hostile towards outgroups under circumstances that promote disgust, such as an epidemic. Studies have also found a seemingly curious effect in that liberals have less prejudice against foreigners and homosexuals when being primed with disgust before their judgments. But as X points out, this is most likely because they view these categories of people as part of their ingroup. So they essentially show the same pattern as conservatives. How they react to their own outgroups has yet to be examined.

The Effect of the Climate

If we take the example of a negative attitude towards homosexuals, hobby-psychiatrically referred to as homophobia, the most common theories on the origin of this attitude are about being gay and repressing it with anger or being scared of others thinking you’re gay and demonstratively objecting to it in order to divert suspicions. It’s very easy to see how these theories are problematic. If being gay would explain even half of the cases of homophobia it would mean that roughly half of the population in many countries in the Arab world must be gay. It would also mean that the number of gay people in for instance Eastern Europe must have increased dramatically for the change in attitude seen there in recent years to make sense. If it was about fear then why are there substantial minorities of homophobes in the most liberal countries like Canada or Holland, where no one gives a damn if you’re gay or not?

Clearly the case for disgust sensitivity appears much stronger. This could also provide an explanation for why some countries are more homophobic than others. If we look at maps of the prevalence of infectious diseases it seems clear that the most cases are found in Africa, the northern half of South America, the southern part of Central America, South- and South East Asia. In these countries there is a high population density that enables disease to spread more easily. It’s also warm, so vector organism can multiply more and aren’t forced to hibernate during winter. Here is a WHO map of combined infectious diseases,

Infectious diseases

Compare this to the PEW map of negative attitudes towards homosexuals,

PEW homosexuality

Or, for that matter, the World Value Survey map of racism,


Sure, it’s no doubt more than one cause behind these attitudes. One likely candidate is clannishness/tribalism which is common in the Muslim world. This trait might explain some anomalies like the conspicuous French racism and the relative lack of homophobia in South America, although the difference between the northern and southern half of South America is striking nonetheless. Russia and Eastern Europe is also an anomaly but this can probably be explained at least in part by the collapse of the Soviet Union. During the communist era citizens were provided with free health care but after this system collapsed life expectancy rates have decreased sharply and infectious diseases like tuberculosis, HIV and even malaria have become more common. All in all, it seems pretty likely that some peoples who have originated in a warm climate would be more prone to outgroup hostility, or that the prevalence of infectious diseases could trigger such hostility.

So, Homophobia and Racism Is Ok Then?

Not exactly. Approving of behavior on the grounds that it’s human nature is absurd. Murder and rape is human nature too; it has been present in every known culture. Our attitude towards other people is always going to be at least partly about choice. If we want to fight these negative attitudes then knowledge is preferred to homespun theories. And knowledge, although still shaky, suggests that fighting racism and homophobia may be more about treating infectious diseases and stopping global warming then lecturing school children or having pride parades.

Of course, not all diseases are disgusting,

18 Responses to A Little Speculation About Disgust Sensitivity and Attitudes Towards Homosexuals and People of Other Races

  1. B.B. says:

    If it was about fear then why are there substantial minorities of homophobes in the most liberal countries like Canada or Holland, where no one gives a damn if you’re gay or not?

    That’s rather self-contradictory.

    • Staffan says:

      How so? I was referring to the theory that homophobes are afraid that someone would brand them as homosexual. But you can’t brand someone in countries like that since it’s a trivial matter, no big deal. The theory might work in Iran but hardly in Canada. I live in Sweden and here it is more of a stigman being a homophobe than being a homosexual. I imagine Canada is similar.

  2. A very interesting article but I think that homophobie and racism are linked with the religion, but I don’t know if the religion is linked with the climate

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks. That’s the other side of disgust. Like Haidt calls his moral foundation Sanctity/Degradation. Religion has a lot to do with the idea of purity and cleanliness, for instance in absolution, baptism etc. Religious people often view outgroups as impure. I didn’t want to go into all of that here because it would make for a very extensive post.

  3. Sisyphean says:

    I remember hearing those theories about hatred of homosexuality being rooted in fear and never quite buying it. Disgust makes a lot more sense if these people hear about gay sex, simply can’t stop themselves from mentally experiencing it, and the disgust causes them to revolt against the idea completely. In that way, the argument “why are you angry about Roger and Steve getting married it doesn’t affect you” is completely wrong, because every time such a person sees Roger and Steve together they take an emotional assault from their disgust reaction. Leading them to want to keep ‘those people’ as far away as possible, either by avoidance if they’re non violent or through violence if they are.

    What’s the right thing to do here? Will constantly exposing people to things that disgust them desensitize those people to the disgust reaction? That may work for some people, likely those with the less extreme reactions, but what about those it doesn’t work for? I’d imagine they would feel more and more marginalized and likely angry about being unable to go anywhere without having homosexuality right in their face.

    Now, as a person with high openness to experience and almost no neuroticism, I’ve never had an issue with whatever sexuality anyone wants to have or however anyone wants to dress or whatever. I score way low on Haight’s disgust scale, It doesn’t bother me to imagine gay sexuality (though I have no interest in it), so it’s easy for me to be comfortable with gay people. But I would not judge others for not being like me, that would be foolish, like scolding a cat for not acting more like a dog.


    • Staffan says:

      I haven’t taken Haidt’s test but I probably score fairly high on sanctity/degradation as well as on Neuroticism, and truth be told I am a bit disgusted by it. It’s obviously a complex issue but I think part of it is probably related to infectious diseases and perhaps the fact that some gay men (but rarely women) are making a point of being as open and public about their sexuality as they possibly can. They seem to think it’s part of their struggle. Even though a lot of them would probably be grossed out if their grandparents were as public as they are.

      • Sisyphean says:

        See to me it just feels mean to be so open about something that you know is bothering someone else, like rubbing salt in an open wound. I’d imagine there are many gay folk who are happy to live quietly but activists, as per usual, aren’t ever satisfied until they’ve broken every boundary, no matter the cost. I can understand the belief that no behavioral concessions should ever be made in order to ‘keep the peace’ I just don’t agree with it.


    • Perfectchild says:

      Interesting point regarding the disgust-revulsion level of sodomy as a throw-back to uncivilized times that modern Mankind has to get over, like a phobia of spiders.

      But, this is rather a displaced investigation. The interest should be on why two genetically and physically unpolarized genes are entwining in a spiral that mimics but does not unwrap their DNA; albeit how brief the entanglement to never meeting again.

      Disgust felt with say; a man shagging a sheep, implies the fault with the Swede with too much imagination on his mind to appreciate the hard-working Politician for an inclusive society, (while without declaring an interest); and should mean therefore more Swedish Education in schools and libraries containing books such as “My Friend Dolly on the Hill” with a tactile ball of wool at the end of a thread, to promote at least a little about the animal-attraction.

      This smacks of Marxist cultural relativism.

      To allude to the removal of ‘disgust’ to absolve a deeper matter regarding the participant, is where the perpetrator becomes the victim. And Islam has mined this very deep neurosis, (which should be examined), of the longer gestation, programmable mind of the large-craniumed Swede.

      Heterosexuals living the free-love lifestyle may be exposed to having serious emotional issues regarding an inability to attach to a parent in the very young creshe’d years of infancy; but Gay Men don’t merit this examination because of discrimination laws of offending a preferential group and so a pathology of their motives and compulsions are missing from research in favor of recording numbers at it and the blood pressure.

      The disgust factor of anal sex and even use of colostomy glory holes are known; but the mind of such a man is very much taboo.

  4. Matt says:

    Cross historically the acceptance of homosexuality isn’t quite like that map though.

    There is an element where Christianity (the “European” religion, effectively, if not always so) places both a relatively high positive emotional premium on virginity, monogamy and sexual purity and on reproductive sex, which seems unusual for world religions, which tend to be more negative about sexual impurity than positive about purity and reproduction at the same time. Christian authority seems to have legislated against homosexual activity to a greater extent than other world religions.

    Concerns about purity, point blank just being higher in humans adapted to tropical zones seems highly problematic to me in light of these people not being less likely to indulge in, for example, potentially disgusting sexual behaviors, within the same society, e.g. heterosexual African Americans are more likely to perform anal sex compared to similar age White Americans (http://inductivist.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/race-and-anal-intercourse.html).

    Or less likely to disapprove of homosexuality within a society If you look at American values surveys, African decendents are only slightly more likely to be disapproving of homosexuality. There is close to no difference in disapproval between White and Black Americans – again inductivist http://inductivist.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/hispanics-are-natural-social-liberals.html. Similar environment, so all things being equal, the tropicoids should be higher, right?

    Rather than just absolute levels of concerns about purity, there might be an element where the ratio of positive emotions about purity to negative emotions related to impurity might be differ between groups, with some difference in effect.

    African Americans may for instance place a great premium on not looking dirty, avoiding contamination, the shamefulness of being dirty, etc. (perhaps as driven by a historically highly competitive but low commitment and investment male mating environment, as much as disease). But there may not be as much in their culture that is an outgrowth of strong positive emotions related to purity and purity related ideas like innocence and wholesomeness – e.g. their musical genres generally don’t seem focused very much on trying to express feelings of very (unnaturally?) pure beauty.

    (Interestingly, it looks like studies seem to repeatedly find that most non-European ethnic groups, such as African and African descended groups, generally relate higher levels of belief that animals are contaminated. I wonder if this may relate to domestic animals, even dogs, being more evolutionarily novel to these groups, compared to Europeans, who evolved close to the heartland of animal domestication, and who seem the most adapted group to a “mixed” plant and animal agricultural package).

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks for you comment. Perhaps you’re right, but I don’t think this data you present is all that convincing. It’s very hard to compare historical records with contemporary polls for a number of obvious reasons.

      As for the surveys you mention, the first one has a level of significance of 5 percent, that’s pretty shaky. Then you have to log into their site to find out how it’s been designed. And as one commenter noted, Black women (who tend to marry within their race) have a harder time finding a good husband who works and is not in jail than others. This could mean they are more allowing than women of other races. That would make any potential desire for this kind of sex translate into acual sex to a higher degree than for races where women don’t compete for men as much. There may be a similar effect for Hispanics.

      The PEW survey actually confirms that Black people are much more negative to homosexuality than other races. I don’t agree with your description when 49 percent of Blacks think it should be accepted compared to 58 and 64 percent for Whites and Hispanics respectively. I’m a little more perturbed by the Hispanics, although they are to a great extent of European descent. They may also be a younger group. It’s not clear if the comparison is adjusted for age or not (that’s not a critique of the survey since there are good reasons not to adjust it, depending on what you’re looking for).

      Also keep in mind that my speculation isn’t exclusively about race. We can see how intolerance of outgroups has increased in Eastern Europe as infectious diseases have become more common there. It may be a combination of these factors. That fits well with the fact that sun people who live in sunny countries have by far the most negative attitude to homosexuals.

    • “(Interestingly, it looks like studies seem to repeatedly find that most non-European ethnic groups, such as African and African descended groups, generally relate higher levels of belief that animals are contaminated. I wonder if this may relate to domestic animals, even dogs, being more evolutionarily novel to these groups, compared to Europeans, who evolved close to the heartland of animal domestication, and who seem the most adapted group to a “mixed” plant and animal agricultural package).”

      Middle easterners have even longer historical exposure to domesticated animals and they share african beliefs in animal contamination, especially regarding dogs and pigs.

  5. […] A Little Speculation About Disgust Sensitivity and Attitudes Towards Homosexuals and People of Other… – ewwww! – from staffan […]

  6. I love Haidt but there is a weakness in his disgust measures. They are unintentionally constructed around political/social questions, such as whether one would use a flag to clean the toilet. One might as well ask whether it would be okay to use a newspaper with a photo of MLK as toilet paper. Same question, different politics. Environmental questions often have disgust elements buried in them. Vegetarians cite not only health but feelings of disgust as motivators – in fact that is the primary vector for people becoming vegetarian. Others are disgusted by hunting, and will especially say that hunting from a vehicle or airplane disgusts them.

    These things are there, but are not yet studied, as you note about liberal reactions to outgroups.

    As for religious influences, I despair of the conversation ever taking place without reflexive stereotypes overriding what people see right in front of them. To consider what Christianity “says” about a subject such as homosexuality and draw conclusions, without looking at the actual other cultures of the world and their values, simply baffles me. In China or Africa there isn’t so much worry about virginity at marriage, about sexual fidelity, about whether there are homosexuals in the village? Islam and Nordic polytheism approved of these things? These attitudes have been common in nearly every people, and usually, lots of death is involved when people break these rules. (The idea that Native American people honored homosexuals is a recent fiction with no factual basis.) Generalisations about Christian disapproval of some types of sexual behavior often seem to start from the premise that the world began in 1970.

    To be clear, I think the religious question is an interesting one. I just see little point in discussing it at present.

    • Staffan says:

      I love Haidt too, and I’m hoping that he will see that the critique against his construct is valid and revise it. He seems smart and flexible enough to do that. These evolutionary traits could be a much more fruitful approach to not just to moral psychology but to personality psychology as well, a field that really needs some new ideas.

      It’s interesting what you say about vegetarians because I became one based on Harm/care but then the possibility of synthetic meat made me realize that it had largely become a matter of disgust without me even thinking about it. I suspect lots of vegetarians will find it hard to eat that stuff and make crazy post hoc explanations for it.

  7. Daniel says:

    I guess you’ve heard of Dave Pizarro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YL3LT1ZvOM He’s influenced by Haidt and writes a lot about disgust. Dessutom är han en underhållande jävel! 😀

    • Staffan says:

      Thanks, I only vaguely recognize the name (probably from Haidt). I’ve largely ignored social psychologists given the state of affairs in that field, but I’ll definitely have a look at it.

      Nice to see a little Swedish language here. I still have some visitors from Sweden but they rarely comment.

  8. John Lillburne says:

    Ther are also theories that homosexuality is spread by a pathogen at an early age or in the mothers womb.

    • Staffan says:

      Yes, I read about that. The low hereditary of male homosexuality is striking compared to all other behavioral traits. Although race is not related to disease at all. It may be more than one trigger for outgroup hostility in this regard. Perhaps a general avoidance of strangers and a specific avoidance of homosexuals, this latter acvoidance, according to Jayman’s post, is even more specific in that it is the most intense in certain situations involving gay men’s interaction with young children.

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