There’s been no shortage of pundit pontification and data analysis that’s tried to figure out why Americans voted for now US President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But a new study published today in Royal Society Open Science suggests that one seemingly unrelated behavioural quirk might have played a small role: An abject hatred of BO.
Research has consistently showed that our sense of disgust – both moral and physical – seems to influence our outlook on everything from politics to sex. This primordial reflex obviously has its benefits (as anyone who’s taken a swig of spoiled milk well knows), but taken too far, it also encourages us to discriminate against outsiders. Studies have also found that the more disgusted you feel about things, the more likely you tend to be conservative. Building on that, Jonas Olofsson, a researcher at Stockholm University in Sweden, and his team theorised that it’s a particular type of disgust that helps explain why people lean toward a specific strain of right wing thinking.
“We thought body odor disgust might be related to authoritarian ideological attitudes, because inter-group contact and social change is minimized in authoritarian societies, which might make disgust-sensitive individuals feel that those societies are more ‘safe’ from contamination,” Olofsson told Gizmodo. “Across three studies, we found that body-odor disgust was indeed associated with the degree to which persons reported authoritarian attitudes.”
The researchers interviewed volunteers recruited online through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, using a survey scale developed by the team. “People’s reports on this survey match how disgusted they are by actual sweat smells,” OIofsson said, referencing earlier research they had performed. “So, we use this scale as a useful method that helps us reach larger groups of participants, and not having to spend our days collecting body odours.”
Body odor, Olofsson’s team believes, is a shorthand people rely on when gauging how riddled with germs someone might be. So it’s more a person’s fear of disease, rather a seething dislike of sweat, that explains why they might be authoritarian. This aversion, interestingly enough, applied to both their own odor as well as others.
The first two surveys, each involving around 160 people, found that a person’s aversion to body odor accounted for about 10 per cent of their tendency to be fans of rigid social order, clearly defined gender roles, and harsh punishments. The third survey, conducted in September of 2016, instead asked over 300 people who they’d prefer to win the election. There was still a noticeable but much weaker relationship this time: A person’s aversion only explained about 2 per cent of their Trump vote, who, I’ll remind you, began his campaign by complaining about Mexico sending its criminals and rapists to America.
“I think that Trump, similar to other major political candidates, attracts a diverse group of voters. The ‘right-wing authoritarianism’ construct is, on the other hand, quite homogeneous, it taps into very specific notions of what society should be like,” Olofsson said. “People’s voting behaviour is a much more complex issue.”
Similarly, his team didn’t find evidence that body odor disgust had any influence on whether people gravitated towards a belief in needing to dominate others to get ahead in the world, which has also been theorised to explain why people become conservative.
Regardless, Olofsson and his team do believe their findings hold plenty of implications for anyone interested in understanding the Fox News world.
“I think that people on the left often misunderstand people on the right. For example, pathogen avoidance concerns play a bigger role for conservatives than liberals. These concerns are often expressed as disgust for political opponents and those who violate social norms and traditions, suspicion of foreign cultures, etc,” he said. “The good news for liberals is that feelings of disgust, even though they have deep biological roots, are possible to change with experience. It is part of our biology to adapt to our environment,” he added.
On a completely unrelated note, anyone remember that time when Trump described himself as a “clean hands freak” who finds the very idea of shaking hands barbaric?