Skip to main content

Why Are Conservatives Grossed Out by Germs?

The debate is far from settled, but a new study hints that traditionalism—rather than a fear of outsiders—explains the odd connection.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Tina Franklin/Flickr)

Weird though it may seem, a number of studies in the last decade suggest that conservatives tendto bemore easily disgusted than liberals, although the reason why remains unclear. New research, however, offers a hint: A nation’s relationship with parasites may be linked to traditional values and, in turn, conservative world views.

“We find that national parasite stress and individual disgust sensitivity relate more strongly to adherence to traditional norms than they relate to support for barriers between social groups,” a team led by Joshua Tybur writes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “These results suggest that the relationship between pathogens and politics reflects intragroup motivations more than intergroup motivations.”

Although there are a number of theories of disgust-conservatism connection, some of the more prominent examples relate to the behavioral immune system, which comprises everyday measures like hand washing or covering a cough that help prevent the spread of disease.

Sensitivity to disgusting things could be connected to xenophobia.

Among those theories, one possibility stems from the observation that some cultural or religious traditions may help promote hygiene and prevent disease, creating a link between disgust and traditional (and therefore conservative) values. A second possibility notes that humans develop immunity to local diseases but remain vulnerable to diseases carried by outsiders (like smallpox). Thus, sensitivity to disgusting things could be connected to xenophobia, a trait more closely associated with conservatives rather than liberals.

Those hypotheses aren’t mutually exclusive, and they’re silent on the matter of whether conservative values lead people to be more easily grossed out, or if it’s the other way around. Still, it’d be nice to get a sense if either the traditionalism or xenophobia hypotheses have some merit.

With that in mind, Joshua Tybur, an associate professor of psychology at Vrije University Amsterdam, and an international team of researchers asked 11,501 people in 30 countries a series of questions about traditional values, social dominance orientation—roughly, the belief that one’s own social group is superior to others—and how repulsed they’d be by such repugnant things as body odor, mold, and cockroaches. The team also gathered data on the history of parasites in a country, which they call “parasite stress.”

An analysis of that data using country-level averages linked parasite stress to traditionalism. Meanwhile, at the individual level, disgust was correlated with both traditionalism and social dominance orientation, although the effect was notably stronger for the former. That doesn’t necessarily mean xenophobia doesn’t play a role, but it does suggest conservatives are more likely to get grossed out because they are more likely to adhere to traditional values, the authors write.