How Disgust Influences Health Purity Attitudes

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    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).

  2. 2.

    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).

  3. 3.

    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).

  4. 4.

    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.

  5. 5.

    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).

  6. 6.

    While Inbar et al. (2012) find a main effect for state disgust on prejudicial attitudes towards gay men, Terrizzi et al. (2010) find that state disgust increases prejudice towards homosexuals among political conservatives, but decreases prejudice among liberals.

  7. 7.

    For a related argument regarding trait fear, see Hatemi et al (2013).

  8. 8.

    The attrition rate is only 22 %, which compares favorably to other panels conducted on Mechanical Turk (c.f. Ahler 2014).

  9. 9.

    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).

  10. 10.

    Although many researchers have relied on the Disgust Scale (Rozin et al. 1999) or Disgust Scale-Revised (Olatunji et al. 2007), these scales are not ideal for measuring the behavioral immune system (Tybur et al. 2014).

  11. 11.

    Subjects were randomly assigned to treatment (n = 118) and control (n = 97) conditions using Qualtrics survey software.

  12. 12.

    Subjects were randomly assigned to treatment (n = 157) and control (n = 156) conditions using Qualtrics.

  13. 13.

    We use two-tailed p-values for control variables, as we do not have directional predictions for the coefficients.

  14. 14.

    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).

  15. 15.

    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.

  16. 16.

    We use an ordered logit model here because our dependent variable only has five categories.

  17. 17.

    We find substantively similar results when using an OLS model.

  18. 18.

    Results are substantively similar when using an OLS or tobit model.

  19. 19.

    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.

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Acknowledgments

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.

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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

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Keywords

  • Disgust
  • Emotion
  • Health
  • Purity
  • Food
  • Natural
  • Organic
  • Vaccination