Political polarization has crept into every facet of our lives, from the neighborhoods we choose to live in to the stores we select for our grocery shopping. New research suggests that it also influences an even more unlikely decision: Whether, when the time comes, we'll be willing to part with our pancreas.
An Australian study offers evidence that, for a variety of reasons, political conservatives are less likely than liberals to agree to donate organs in the event of their death.
"The low supply of organs is a global concern," writes Eugene Chan of Monash University. "It is crucial to recognize the barriers, whether cognitive or emotional, that influence individuals' willingness to sign up onto organ donation registries."
Chan's research, published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, suggests a right-wing ideology is one such barrier.
Chan recruited 228 Australian students from upper-level management courses. All had voted in the previous federal election; none had signed up with the national organ-donor registry. They noted their political party affiliation, and, using a nine-point scale, estimated how likely they were to register as an organ donor within the next six months.
They also expressed their attitudes toward a number of subjects that could influence their decision, including mistrust of medicine, and what Chan labels "ick factors" and "jinx factors." He notes that previous research has found conservative morality tends to lean heavily on the concepts of purity and sanctity, and has linked right-wing views with higher sensitivity to disgust. He speculated that some or all of those predispositions would lower conservatives' inclination to sign up as an organ donor.
He was correct: Supporters of conservative political parties were less likely to report that they intended to become organ donors. They also reported higher levels of disgust, and more concern about "bodily integrity," than their left-leaning counterparts.
"A desire to preserve bodily integrity is associated with the belief that a person who has to endure eternity, or be reincarnated without organs, would be precluded from the afterlife," Chan writes. "Conservatism is strongly associated with religious belief, but it also directly relates to a greater adherence to social and sacred things," such as "not violating taboos."
Chan further speculates that conservatives would be more likely to believe signing up to donate organs "would be 'tempting fate,' and bring about negative outcomes, such as death, sooner." He included three statements along those lines for the students to respond to, and, sure enough, members of right-wing parties scored higher than those on the left.
Presuming they are replicable in larger samples, these findings have practical implications. As Chan notes, the supply of organs available for transplant usually falls far below the demand. With this in mind, he notes, "targeted organ-donation drives can be directed appropriately"—which is to say, to members of NPR rather than the NRA.
In addition, Chan says, transplant advocates could shape their entreaties to conservative people in ways that try to minimize disgust—say, "by communicating how the body would be treated with integrity."
In the meantime, we have yet another example of the enormous scope of our ideological divide. Partisans from both parties have been known to vent their spleens. But those on the left are more likely to also donate them.