One of the traditional media stereotypes was “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”. He – it was invariably a “he” – wrote letters to the Telegraph or Times. In response to some recent event, the theme of such letters was always one of moral decline, disrespect for authority and such. Sir Herbert Gussett, although not from Tunbridge Wells, plays the same role in the pages of Private Eye. The image is of some retired military type or traditionalist civil servant.
These characters came to mind when I was recently alerted to a fascinating piece of scientific research from 2014. Neuroscientists at the Virginia Tech Research Institute found a close connection between political views and the degree of brain response when shown disgusting images. The more right wing a person’s views were, the more their brains reacted to the images. The team found that they could predict a person’s politics to 95% accuracy by measuring their brain’s response to a single disgusting image. (The full scientific paper can be read on the Current Biology website.)
The team who carried out the research used an MRI scanner to detect brain activity in 83 volunteers whilst subjecting them to a range of images: disgusting, threatening, pleasant, and neutral. They also got each volunteer to complete a questionnaire known to give a standardised measure of political outlook. Systematic differences between liberals and conservatives were only observed for the disgusting images. Clearly, it’s not practical to carry out this experiment routinely on the population at large. So, of what use is this knowledge?
Well, it’s interesting to think around the close association of the apparently rational: political views and the apparently emotional: disgust. Intuitively, it does seem to fit with the intolerance associated with a right-wing position. Examples of such intolerance:
- Attitudes to sex before marriage
- Children born outside marriage
- Same-sex marriages (my view: if you don’t approve, don’t marry someone of the same sex – problem solved!)
- Not singing the national anthem
- Not wearing a poppy for weeks before 11th November each year
- Lack of deference to authority
- Dislike of the other, e.g. foreigners
- Going to the wrong sort of school
And so on. By contrast, a liberal outlook results in a more “live and let live” approach. A clear danger for the left is the paradox that openness to difference tends also to encourage factionalism. The right, on the other hand, generally keep their differences suppressed, or in private.
Nature v Nurture?
Sadly, the research doesn’t really throw any light on the age-old “nature v. nurture” debate. Does being easily disgusted cause someone to be right wing, or is it the other way round? Or is it our environment, or our genes, which influence both?
Tunbridge Wells has a Tory MP. Perhaps a lot of voters there conform to the “Disgusted / Gussett” stereotype, perhaps not. Maybe it boils down to this. It was an interesting research finding, but it raises more questions than it answers. More research, anyone?