Food and health regulations are increasingly being pushed onto the political agenda, with rising concerns about genetically modified foods, obesity rates, and vaccination. Public beliefs and attitudes on these issues often conflict with the scientific evidence, yet we know relatively little about what influences opinion on these issues. The public lacks clear partisan cues, and many food and health attitudes cut across the ideological spectrum. We argue that these issues represent new ‘purity’ attitudes that are driven by the emotion of disgust. Across three studies, both by measuring individuals’ trait disgust sensitivity and experimentally inducing an emotional state of disgust, we demonstrate the impact of disgust on food and health policy attitudes. Our results show that greater sensitivity to disgust is associated with support for organic foods, opposition to genetically modified foods, and anti-vaccination beliefs. However, we find only limited evidence that experimentally manipulated disgust affects attitudes toward genetically modified and organic foods. Overall, our results demonstrate that disgust plays an important role in attitudes regarding public health and broadens our understanding of purity attitudes.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Heidi Stevenson, “GMO Toxins in Nearly All Pregnant Women & Fetuses,” GreenMedInfo, www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/gmo-toxins-are-nearly-all-pregnant-women-fetuses (accessed June 5, 2014).
Barbara Loe Fisher, “Vaccine Contamination: A Threat to Human Health,” National Vaccine Information Center Newsletter, www.nvic.org/NVIC-Vaccine-News/May-2010/VACCINE-CONTAMINATION--A-THREAT-TO-HUMAN-HEALTH.aspx (accessed June 1, 2014).
Scott Hendrick, “Vermont’s New GMO Labeling Law Faces Challenges,” National Conference of State Legislatures Blog. http://www.ncsl.org/blog/2014/05/12/vermont-s-new-gmo-labeling-law-faces-challenges.aspx (accessed December 19, 2014).
CBS News. CBS News/60 Minutes/Vanity Fair Poll: Genetically Modified Food/Sports/Gun Control. 1st Roper Center for Public Opinion Research version. Lincoln, NE: Gallup Organization [producer], 2000. Storrs, CT: The Roper Center, University of Connecticut [distributor], 2013.
Some hold that disgust has its origins in oral rejection of bitter substances (which may be poisonous), but was then co-opted as a disease avoidance mechanism (Chapman et al. 2009; Rozin et al. 2009), while another line of literature views pathogen disgust as having its origins rooted more directly in pathogen avoidance (Tybur et al. 2013).
For a related argument regarding trait fear, see Hatemi et al (2013).
The attrition rate is only 22 %, which compares favorably to other panels conducted on Mechanical Turk (c.f. Ahler 2014).
Sexual disgust is theorized to motivate the avoidance of sexual partners and behaviors that could endanger long-term reproductive success, while moral disgust motivates the avoidance of social norm violators (Tybur et al. 2009).
Subjects were randomly assigned to treatment (n = 118) and control (n = 97) conditions using Qualtrics survey software.
Subjects were randomly assigned to treatment (n = 157) and control (n = 156) conditions using Qualtrics.
We use two-tailed p-values for control variables, as we do not have directional predictions for the coefficients.
We also find no evidence that the treatment affected the distribution of disgust sensitivity, as the variance was indistinguishable across conditions (SDcontrol = .78, SDtreat = .73, p = .53).
We find evidence that the three items making up the purchasing index do not scale well (α = .51), largely due to the reversed item. However, our results are substantively unchanged by analyzing each item independently.
We use an ordered logit model here because our dependent variable only has five categories.
We find substantively similar results when using an OLS model.
Results are substantively similar when using an OLS or tobit model.
This finding is consistent with Kurzban et al. (2010), who argue that opposition to drug use is motivated by a committed reproductive strategy, which is associated with sexual, rather than pathogen disgust.
Ahler, D. J. (2014). Self-fulfilling misperceptions of public polarization. The Journal of Politics, 76(03), 607–620.
Balzer, A., & Jacobs, C. M. (2011). Gender and physiological effects in connecting disgust to political preferences. Social Science Quarterly,. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00819.x.
Banks, A. J., & Valentino, N. A. (2012). Emotional substrates of white racial attitudes. American Journal of Political Science, 56(2), 286–297.
Barry, C. L., Brescoll, V. L., Brownell, K. D., & Schlesinger, M. (2009). Obesity metaphors: How beliefs about the causes of obesity affect support for public policy. The Milbank Quarterly, 87(1), 7–47.
Belch, M. A., & Willis, L. A. (2002). Family decision at the turn of the century: Has the changing structure of households impacted the family decision-making process? Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 2(2), 111–124. doi:10.1002/cb.94.
Berinsky, A. J., Huber, G. A., & Lenz, G. S. (2012). Evaluating online labor markets for experimental research: Amazon.com’s mechanical turk. Political Analysis, 20(3), 351–368. doi:10.1093/pan/mpr057.
Brader, T. (2005). Striking a responsive chord: How political ads motivate and persuade voters by appealing to emotions. American Journal of Political Science, 49(2), 388–405. doi:10.1111/j.0092-5853.2005.00130.x.
Brader, T., Valentino, N. A., & Suhay, E. (2008). What triggers public opposition to immigration? Anxiety, group cues, and immigration threat. American Journal of Political Science, 52(4), 959–978. doi:10.1111/j.1540-5907.2008.00353.x.
Brownell, K. D. (1991). Personal responsibility and control over our bodies: When expectation exceeds reality. Health Psychology, 10(5), 303–310.
Cashdan, E., & Steele, M. (2013). Pathogen prevalence, group bias, and collectivism in the standard cross-cultural sample. Human Nature, 24(1), 59–75.
Cassese, E. C., & Hannagan, R. (2014). Framing and women’s support for government spending on breast cancer research and treatment programs. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy,. doi:10.1111/asap.12048.
Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M., & Anderson, A. K. (2009). In bad taste: Evidence for the oral origins of moral disgust. Science, 323(5918), 1222–1226.
Charash, M., & McKay, D. (2002). Attention bias for disgust. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 16(5), 529–541.
Clifford, S., & Jerit, J. (2013). How words do the work of politics: Moral foundations theory and the debate over stem cell research. The Journal of Politics, 1–13.
Clifford, S., Jerit, J., Rainey, C., & Motyl, M. (2015). Moral concerns and policy attitudes: Investigating the influence of elite rhetoric. Political Communication, 33(2), 229–248.
Costa-Font, M., Gil, J. M., & Traill, W. B. (2008). Consumer acceptance, valuation of and attitudes towards genetically modified food: Review and implications for food policy. Food Policy, 33(2), 99–111.
Curtis, V., & Biran, A. (2001). Dirt, disgust, and disease: Is hygiene in our genes? Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, 44(1), 17–31.
Faulkner, J., Schaller, M., Park, J. H., & Duncan, L. A. (2004). Evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms and contemporary xenophobic attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 7(4), 333–353.
Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2013). The moral roots of environmental attitudes. Psychological Science, 24(1), 56–62.
Fincher, C. L., Thornhill, R., Murray, D. R., & Schaller, M. (2008). Pathogen prevalence predicts human cross-cultural variability in individualism/collectivism. Proceedings. Biological sciences/The Royal Society, 275(1640), 1279–1285.
Gadarian, S. K. (2010). The politics of threat: How terrorism news shapes foreign policy attitudes. The Journal of Politics, 72(02), 469.
Gadarian, S. K., & Albertson, B. (2014). Anxiety, immigration, and the search for information. Political Psychology, 35(2), 133–164. doi:10.1111/pops.12034.
Gault, B. A., & Sabini, J. (2000). The roles of empathy, anger, and gender in predicting attitudes toward punitive, reparative, and preventative public policies. Cognition & Emotion, 14(4), 495–520.
Gerber, A. S., et al. (2011). Personality Traits and Participation in Political Processes. The Journal of Politics, 73(3), 692–706.
Graham, J., Haidt, J., & Nosek, B. A. (2009). Liberals and conservatives rely on different sets of moral foundations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 1029–1046.
Groenendyk, E. (2011). Current emotion research in political science: how emotions help democracy overcome its collective action problem. Emotion Review, 3(4), 455–463.
Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: Conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98–116. doi:10.1007/s11211-007-0034-z.
Haidt, J., McCauley, C., & Rozin, P. (1994). Individual differences in sensitivity to disgust: A scale sampling seven domains of disgust elicitors. Personality and Individual Differences, 16(5), 701–713.
Hatemi, P., & McDermott, R. (2012). Policing the perimeter: Disgust and purity in democratic debate. Political Science & Politics, 45(04), 675–687.
Hatemi, P. K., et al. (2013). Fear as a disposition and an emotional state: A genetic and environmental approach to out-group political preferences. American Journal of Political Science, 57(2), 279–293.
Hauser, D. J., & Schwarz, N. (2015). Attentive turkers: MTurk participants perform better on online attention checks than do subject pool participants. Behavior Research Methods.
Hausman, B. L., Ghebremichael, M., Hayek, P., & Mack, E. (2014). ‘Poisonous, filthy, loathsome, damnable stuff’: The rhetorical ecology of vaccination concern. The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, 87(4), 403–416.
Hibbing, J. R., Smith, K. B., & Alford, J. R. (2014). Differences in negativity bias underlie variations in political ideology. The Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 37(3), 297–307.
Horberg, E. J., Oveis, C., Keltner, D., & Cohen, A. B. (2009). Disgust and the moralization of purity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(6), 963–976.
Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2009). Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Cognition & Emotion, 23(4), 714–725.
Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2012). Disgusting smells cause decreased liking of gay men. Emotion, 12(1), 23–27.
Inbar, Y., Pizarro, D., Iyer, R., & Haidt, J. (2011). Disgust sensitivity, political conservatism, and voting. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(5), 537–544.
Kahan, D. M., et al. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2(10), 732–735. doi:10.1038/nclimate1547.
Koleva, S. P., et al. (2012). Tracing the threads: How five moral concerns (especially purity) help explain culture war attitudes. Journal of Research in Personality, 46(2), 184–194.
Kurzban, R., Dukes, A., & Weeden, J. (2010). Sex, drugs and moral goals: Reproductive strategies and views about recreational drugs. Proceedings. Biological sciences/The Royal Society, 277(1699), 3501–3508.
Lee, J. J., Sohn, Y., & Fowler, J. H. (2013). Emotion regulation as the foundation of political attitudes: Does reappraisal decrease support for conservative policies? PloS One, 8(12), 83143.
Lerner, J. S., & Keltner, D. (2001). Fear, anger, and risk. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(1), 146–159.
Lieberman, D., & Patrick, C. (2014). Are the behavioral immune system and pathogen disgust identical? Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8(4), 244–250.
Lieberman, D. L., Tybur, J. M., & Latner, J. D. (2012). Disgust sensitivity, obesity stigma, and gender: Contamination psychology predicts weight bias for women, not men. Obesity, 20(9), 1803–1814.
Mäkiniemi, J.-P., Pirttilä-Backman, A.-M., & Pieri, M. (2012). The endorsement of the moral foundations in food-related moral thinking in three European Countries. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 26(4), 771–786. doi:10.1007/s10806-012-9401-3.
Marcus, G. E., Neuman, W. R., & Michael, M. (2000). Affective intelligence and political judgment. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Miller, S. L., & Maner, J. K. (2012). Overperceiving disease cues: The basic cognition of the behavioral immune system. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(6), 1198–1213.
Mondak, J. J. (2010). Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Mondak, J. J., et al. (2010). Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior. American Political Science Review, 104(1), 85.
Navarrete, C. D., & Fessler, D. M. T. (2006). Disease avoidance and ethnocentrism: The effects of disease vulnerability and disgust sensitivity on intergroup attitudes. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(4), 270–282.
Neuberg, S. L., Kenrick, D. T., & Schaller, M. (2011). Human threat management systems: Self-protection and disease avoidance. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(4), 1042–1051.
Nicolia, A., Manzo, A., Veronesi, F., & Rosellini, D. (2014). An overview of the last 10 years of genetically engineered crop safety research. Critical Reviews in Biotechnology, 34(1), 77–88.
Nisbet, M. C., Brossard, D., & Kroepsch, A. (2003). Framing science: The stem cell controversy in an age of PressPolitics. The Harvard International Journal of Press/Politics, 8(2), 36–70.
Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2014). Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information. Vaccine, 33(3), 459–464.
Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). Effective messages in vaccine promotion: a randomized trial. Pediatrics, 133(4), e835–e842.
Oaten, M., Stevenson, R. J., & Case, T. I. (2009). Disgust as a disease-avoidance mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 303–321.
Olatunji, B. O., et al. (2007). The disgust scale: Item analysis, factor structure, and suggestions for refinement. Psychological Assessment, 19(3), 281–297.
Olatunji, B. O., et al. (2008). Disgust, scrupulosity and conservative attitudes about sex: Evidence for a mediational model of homophobia. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(5), 1364–1369.
Olatunji, B. O., et al. (2012). The three domains of disgust scale: Factor structure, psychometric properties, and conceptual limitations. Assessment, 19(2), 205–225.
Oxley, D. R., et al. (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science, 321(5896), 1667–1670.
Panagopoulos, C. (2011). Thank you for voting: Gratitude expression and voter mobilization. The Journal of Politics, 73(03), 707–717.
Park, J. H., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2003). Evolved disease-avoidance processes and contemporary anti-social behavior: prejudicial attitudes and avoidance of people with physical disabilities. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27(2), 65–87.
Park, J. H., Schaller, M., & Crandall, C. S. (2007). Pathogen-avoidance mechanisms and the stigmatization of obese people. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28(6), 410–414.
Petersen, M. B. (2010). Distinct emotions, distinct domains: anger, anxiety and perceptions of intentionality. The Journal of Politics, 72(02), 357.
Petersen, M. B., Sznycer, D., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2012). Who deserves help? Evolutionary psychology, social emotions, and public opinion about welfare. Political psychology, 33(3), 395–418.
Rasmussen, M., et al. (2006). Determinants of fruit and vegetable consumption among children and adolescents: A review of the literature. Part I: Quantitative studies. The. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 3(1), 22.
Richards, J. L., et al. (2013). Nonmedical exemptions to immunization requirements in California: A 16-year longitudinal analysis of trends and associated community factors. Vaccine, 31(29), 3009–3013.
Rozin, P. (1999). The process of moralization. Psychological Science, 10(3), 218–221.
Rozin, P., & Fallon, A. E. (1987). A perspective on disgust. Psychological Review, 94(1), 23–41.
Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & Fincher, K. (2009). From oral to moral. Science, 323(5918), 1179–1180.
Rozin, P., Markwith, M., & Stoess, C. (1997). Moralization and becoming a vegetarian: The transformation of preferences into values and the recruitment of disgust. Psychological Science, 8(2), 67–73.
Rozin, P., Millman, L., & Nemeroff, C. (1986). Operation of the laws of sympathetic magic in disgust and other domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 703–712.
Rozin, P., et al. (1999). Individual differences in disgust sensitivity: Comparisons and evaluations of paper-and-pencil versus behavioral measures. Journal of Research in Personality, 33(3), 330–351.
Rozin, P., et al. (2004). Preference for natural: Instrumental and ideational/moral motivations, and the contrast between foods and medicines. Appetite, 43(2), 147–154.
Rozin, P., et al. (2005). The meaning of ‘natural’: Process more important than content. Psychological science, 16(8), 652–658.
Russell, P. S., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2010). Moral anger is more flexible than moral disgust. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(4), 360–364.
Russell, P. S., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2011). Social justifications for moral emotions: When reasons for disgust are less elaborated than for anger. Emotion, 11(3), 637–646.
Ryan, T. J. (2012). What makes us click? Demonstrating incentives for angry discourse with digital-age field experiments. The Journal of Politics, 74(04), 1138–1152.
Sawchuk, C. N., et al. (2000). Disgust sensitivity and contamination fears in spider and blood–injection–injury phobias. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 38(8), 753–762.
Schaller, M., & Murray, D. R. (2008). Pathogens, personality, and culture: Disease prevalence predicts worldwide variability in sociosexuality, extraversion, and openness to experience. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(1), 212–221.
Schaller, M., & Park, J. H. (2011). The behavioral immune system (and why it matters). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(2), 99–103.
Schnall, S., Haidt, J., Clore, G. L., & Jordan, A. H. (2008). Disgust as embodied moral judgment. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1096–1109.
Searles, K., and Mattes, K. 2015. It’s a mad, mad world: Using emotion inductions in a survey. Journal of Experimental Political Science, 1–11.
Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., & Lichtenstein, S. (1982). Why study risk perception? Risk Analysis, 2(2), 83–93. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.1982.tb01369.x.
Small, D. A., & Lerner, J. S. (2008). Emotional policy: Personal sadness and anger shape judgments about a welfare case. Political Psychology, 29(2), 149–168. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00621.x.
Smith, K. B., et al. (2011a). Disgust Sensitivity and the neurophysiology of left-right political orientations. PloS One, 6(10), 25552.
Smith, P. J., et al. (2011b). Parental delay or refusal of vaccine doses, childhood vaccination coverage at 24 months of age, and the health belief model. Public health reports, 126(2), 135–146.
Strohminger, N. (2014). Disgust talked about. Philosophy Compass, 9(7), 478–493. doi:10.1111/phc3.12137.
Sugerman, D. E., et al. (2010). Measles outbreak in a highly vaccinated population, San Diego, 2008: Role of the intentionally undervaccinated. Pediatrics, 125(4), 747–755.
Tenbült, P., de Vries, N. K., Dreezens, E., & Martijn, C. (2005). Perceived naturalness and acceptance of genetically modified food. Appetite, 45(1), 47–50.
Terrizzi, J. A., Shook, N. J., & McDaniel, M. A. (2013). The behavioral immune system and social conservatism: A meta-analysis. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(2), 99–108.
Terrizzi, J. A., Shook, N. J., & Ventis, W. L. (2010). Disgust: A predictor of social conservatism and prejudicial attitudes toward homosexuals. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(6), 587–592.
Tiggemann, M., & Rothblum, E. D. (1988). Gender differences in social consequences of perceived overweight in the United States and Australia. Sex Roles, 18(1–2), 75–86.
Toronchuk, J. A., & Ellis, G. F. R. (2007). Disgust: Sensory affect or primary emotional system? Cognition & Emotion, 21(8), 1799–1818.
Tybur, J. M., Frankenhuis, W. E., & Pollet, T. V. (2014). Behavioral immune system methods: Surveying the present to shape the future. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8(4), 274–283.
Tybur, J. M., Lieberman, D., & Griskevicius, V. (2009). Microbes, mating, and morality: Individual differences in three functional domains of disgust. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(1), 103–122.
Tybur, J. M., Lieberman, D., Kurzban, R., & DeScioli, P. (2013). Disgust: Evolved function and structure. Psychological Review, 120(1), 65–84.
Tybur, J. M., et al. (2010). Extending the behavioral immune system to political psychology: are political conservatism and disgust sensitivity really related? Evolutionary Psychology: An International Journal of Evolutionary Approaches to Psychology and Behavior, 8(4), 599–616.
Tybur, J. M., et al. (2011). Sex differences and sex similarities in disgust sensitivity. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(3), 343–348.
Valentino, N. A., Banks, A. J., Hutchings, V. L., & Davis, A. K. (2009). Selective exposure in the internet age: The interaction between anxiety and information utility. Political Psychology, 30(4), 591–613. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9221.2009.00716.x.
Valentino, N. A., Gregorowicz, K., & Groenendyk, E. W. (2008). Efficacy, emotions and the habit of participation. Political Behavior, 31(3), 307–330. doi:10.1007/s11109-008-9076-7.
Valentino, N. A., et al. (2011). Election night’s alright for fighting: The role of emotions in political participation. The Journal of Politics, 73(01), 156–170.
Vartanian, L. R. (2010). Disgust and perceived control in attitudes toward obese people. International Journal of Obesity (2005), 34(8), 1302–1307.
Vermeir, I., & Verbeke, W. (2006). Sustainable food consumption: Exploring the consumer ‘attitude–behavioral intention’ gap. Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 19(2), 169–194. doi:10.1007/s10806-005-5485-3.
Wang, E., Clymer, J., Davis-Hayes, C., & Buttenheim, A. (2014). Nonmedical exemptions from school immunization requirements: A systematic review. American Journal of Public Health, 104(11), 62–84.
Warren, C. W., Jones, N. R., Eriksen, M. P., & Asma, S. (2006). Patterns of global tobacco use in young people and implications for future chronic disease burden in adults. Lancet, 367(9512), 749–753.
Weinberg, J. D., Freese, J., & McElhattan, D. (2014). Comparing data characteristics and results of an online factorial survey between a population-based and crowdsource-recruited sample. Sociological Science, 1, 292–310.
The authors would like to thank the Duke Initiative on Survey Methodology for funding support and Antoine Banks, Stanley Feldman, Shana Gadarian, Jennifer Jerit, Rick Matland, and Spencer Piston for helpful comments.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
About this article
Cite this article
Clifford, S., Wendell, D.G. How Disgust Influences Health Purity Attitudes. Polit Behav 38, 155–178 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-015-9310-z