Ideological Disgust and Authoritarianism

By | 28th August 2017

(This article represents an initial laying-out of some thoughts I’m having about an emerging research interest. If you have comments or suggestions to make about this line of work, or if you are a psychologist interested in collaborating on this type of project, please do get in touch).


We are living in times of increased and accelerated political polarisation. Barely a day goes by without another news story breaking about a ridiculous move made by President Donald Trump that emboldens the far-right, or a[n equally contemptible, and often violent] action being carried out by groups affiliated with the far-left.


(Sadly, recent events have made it necessary to explicitly state that condemnation of the far-left is not equivalent to tacit approval or sympathy for the far right or neo-Nazi groups. This article should be read as being categorically against all forms of ideological extremism).


The result of such polarisation seems to be an impulse towards the authoritarian. That is, slight disagreements are met with scorn and condemnation, while those who clearly disagree are met with attempted censorship or personal attack. It is unclear why (or when) such authoritarianism became the default response to political or ideological disagreement. On one level, the ‘when’ is largely irrelevant (though the discussion later may shed some light on this). However, as a psychologist, the question of ‘why’ is intriguing. What’s more, the answer is not necessarily obvious – at least not when you consult the current psychological literature on authoritarianism.


Ideological Disgust as a Motivator of Authoritarianism

It’s clear that authoritarianism doesn’t exists in the real world in the same way that it does in psychological journals. While “right-wing authoritarianism” may be a nice umbrella term for a construct tapping into conservative political motivations, it doesn’t seem capable of capturing the full extent of authoritarianism across the ideological spectrum.

First, we should address two forms of authoritarianism. On the one hand, we have authoritarianism as an individual difference construct. This approach frames authoritarian tendencies as motivators of ideologically-driven behaviours. There are measurement issues around this form of authoritarianism (e.g., the right-wing emphasis inherent in classical and contemporary measures) that may require attention in the field of personality psychology that are beyond the scope of this article.

In contrast, we also see authoritarianism as a behaviour. That is, people can act in ways that can be described as authoritarian in nature. Examples include refusing the right to protest, banning particular publications, or censoring materials associated with particular groups or worldviews. It is this type of authoritarianism that is of interest to me here.


I have one key claim to make in this article: politically authoritarian acts occur (in part) because of an exaggerated experience of something I’m going to refer to as ‘ideological disgust’.


Let’s look very quickly at disgust as it is conventionally used in psychological research. Disgust is defined as a moral emotion. It is something that we feel in response to specific types of stimuli. Researchers have formulated measures of so-called ‘disgust sensitivity’, which have attempted to operationalise these stimuli domains. According to one of the most-cited disgust sensitivity measures, which was originally put together by Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, and Paul Rozin, but then revised using data collected by Bunmi Olatunji and colleagues, sets out three such domains:

  1. ‘core disgust’ (attached to stimuli such as rotten food or bodily products)
  2. ‘animal-reminder disgust’ (attached to stimuli such as death or rotting flesh)
  3. ‘contamination disgust’(attached to stimuli such as using the same toilet as other people, or drinking from somebody else’s cup).

Measures such as these have been reliably related to moral and political judgements. For example, those scoring higher or disgust sensitivity are more likely to identify as being politically conservative than those scoring low. Further, disgust sensitivity was associated with a preference for John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 US Presidential Election (both at the individual and population levels). Inducing disgust in the lab also has interesting effects. Those who complete measures in rooms smelling of fart spray, for example, are more likely to express negative judgements of gay men than those whose rooms were not sprayed. For perhaps the most accessible review of disgust literature as it currently stands in relation to politics, see David Pizarro’s 2012 TED talk.

Given how disgust is intrinsically linked to contamination, we can see how an ideological form of disgust could lead to authoritarian behaviours to stop the spread of ‘infectious ideas’. As Pizarro states, when a disgusting item touches a clean item, the clean item becomes infected (as opposed to the disgusting item becoming cleansed). The same analogy can be invoked when discussing ideas. To give recent trends as an example, it has been reported how those on the far-left accuse moderate liberals and centrists as being the true ideologues when they oppose extremism on both sides of the ideological spectrum. This could be explained as those moderates and centrists being seen as ‘contaminated’ by far-right viewpoints, with authoritarian responses (see the recent Antifa riots) being a response to quell this potential contamination.

Conceptually, ideological disgust may represent an emotional response to viewpoints that are seen as a threat to an individual’s worldview. Authoritarianism, then, is an appropriate behavioural safeguard against the spread of infectious ideas.

At the recent International Society of Political Psychology conference in Edinburgh (UK), April Kelly-Woessner presented research that suggested rising political intolerance among younger people, as compared to those who were older. This supports emerging trends on college campuses, where universal free speech appears to being replaced by authoritarianism on the political left in the name of ‘intolerance of intolerance’.

According to Kelly-Woessner, political intolerance can be a symptom of an underlying lack of confidence (or incapability) to defend one’s own position through the free exchange of ideas. It is here where further links can be drawn to wider cultural trends around social media use and the development of ideological filter bubbles, or echo chambers. If we are consistently engaging with viewpoints and ideas that only confirm our own opinions, then perhaps the purity of thought within these online communities make us more susceptible, or more sensitive, to experiencing ideological disgust when we encounter an opinion from the ‘other side’.

So how might we test these ideas?

The concept of ideological disgust offers some scope for empirical research to examine its underlying validity. Some examples of research questions could include:

  1. Do people self-report experiencing disgust at ideas related to ideologically-opposing viewpoints?
  2. Is there an association between feeling ideological disgust and having a more ideologically pure online social environment?
  3. Can we elicit physiological disgust responses when presenting partisans to stimuli to which they are ideologically opposed?
  4. Does the experience of ideological disgust predict authoritarian behaviour?
  5. Do we see some degree of ideological symmetry in these trends (i.e., do they occur equally on the left and right)? Are they linked to ideological strength?

These are all potentially exciting projects to examine why we are witnessing increased levels of authoritarianism on both sides of the political divide. This may take some rethinking about how we conceptualise (or at least how we measure) constructs such as disgust and authoritarianism within social and personality psychology, but they pay-offs in terms of understanding merging cultural trends across the ideological spectrum may well be worth such a transformation.

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