People high in 'disgust sensitivity' may be more likely to support mask-wearing and social distancing

Business Insider US

  • People who are "disgust sensitive," meaning they're especially sensitive to the threat of contamination, are more likely to take precautions against the coronavirus like wearing masks, a new report shows.
  • The trait interacts with political affiliation to help shape people's support or opposition to such public-health interventions, the report also found.
  • Republicans high in disgust sensitivity, for example, may feel more of a tug toward mask-wearing than those without the predisposition.
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People who possess a biological trait known as "disgust sensitivity" are more likely to take and support precautions that help control the spread of the novel coronavirus, a new report out of the Democracy Fund's Voter Study Group shows.

Political affiliation matters too, with Republicans less likely than Democrats to endorse public-health precautions like social distancing and mask-wearing since both take cues from party leaders, the report found.

The two factors - one innate, one external - interact in ways that can enhance some people's beliefs and actions while complicating others. For instance, it's a no-brainer for a Democrat high in disgust sensitivity to wear a mask; a Republican high in the trait, however, may face more internal conflict since Trump and other Republican leaders have been resistant.

"These decisions that people are making in their daily lives, which are influenced not just by their biological predispositions, but by the ... partisan messages that they're hearing, are going to determine whether or not this current outbreak is going to get even worse than it is now," Sides said.

Disgust sensitivity shapes how much people are driven to avoid a range of contaminants

Disgust sensitivity is an "emotion that orients us to avoid potential contaminants," whether that's "contaminants personally to the body or contaminants spiritually to the soul and to the society," study co-author Cindy Kam, a professor of public opinion, political psychology, and research methods at Vanderbilt University.

People high in the trait tend to be more likely to say they'd avoid eating at a restaurant if they knew the chef had a cold. They might also be more turned off at the idea of accidentally taking a sip of a friend's drink.

They may also be more likely to have obsessive-compulsive tendencies, score high on neuroticism, or experience aversions, like to spiders, Kam said.

Historically, the trait has helped explain why some people are more likely to support food safety regulations, border closings, or even same-sex marriage than others, Kam said her previous work has shown.

In the current report, she found "disgust sensitivity plays a big role in how people think about what the government should do to protect society from people coming from places where outbreaks have occurred [and] how active state and local government should be in encouraging a variety of protective policies, such as social distancing, closing businesses, canceling events, and so on," she said.

How disgust sensitivity interacts with political affiliation matters too

The report also found that people's support for such public-health interventions is influenced by messages from their party leaders, both during the current pandemic and past outbreaks.

Republicans were more concerned about the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak than Democrats, the report found, in part due to Republican leaders at the time accusing President Obama of not doing enough to protect against the threat.

Today, the reverse is true, with Democrats more likely to express concern about the coronavirus as President Trump faces blame for failing to appropriately respond.

There's not a strong correlation between disgust sensitivity and political affiliation, Kam said, meaning that a significant portion of the population may be somewhat torn in what precautions they take or support - and some may support one philosophy but do another.

"A significant fraction of Republicans don't appear to support a ban on large gatherings, but that doesn't mean that they themselves want to go, you know, to the honky tonk in downtown Nashville ... and have some beers," Kam's colleague and co-author John Sides said.

But as more Republican leaders break from Trump's longstanding downplaying of the seriousness of the virus, some of the tension between political beliefs and disgust sensitivity may dissipate.

"If it shifts in a way that creates more concern about the virus, then maybe that'll alleviate some of the cross-pressures that Republicans who are higher in disgust sensitivity might otherwise feel," he said.

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