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Jean Marie Le Pen – Image courtesy of Fabien Dany – www.fabiendany.com

Have you noticed that some people often express the emotion of disgust? For example, the historical leader of the extreme right-wing French party “Le Front National”, Jean-Marie Lepen, is routinely seen with an expression of disgust on his face. Very often when he gives a talk, you can see his nose wrinkling, his mouth opening, his lips going down and his eyes becoming smaller. Even computer analysis of the image of his face clearly shows that disgust is the main emotion he is experiencing when talking (Berrod, 2007). Why do some people show such an emotion so often?

Evolutionary psychologists have found support for the idea that emotions have a protective function: they prepare our body to react to environmental threats. For example, fear makes us able to run and anger gives us the energy we need to fight. Regarding disgust, the automatic involuntary changes in the muscles of the face help us to avoid contamination, by prompting the mouth to expel dangerous food and liquids and protecting the nose from hazardous odors (Rozin et al., 1997).  But why would people be afraid of being contaminated in their social life?

Darwin-disgust-Image-2The answer may again lie in the psychology of emotions. Evolution has indeed built another more social emotion, which is called socio-moral disgust. This emotion arises when one feels that somebody’s behavior violates one’s sense of purity (Rozin et al., 1999). For example, as social psychologists have shown, one may experience socio-moral disgust when somebody cheats. It is also an emotion that one can feel when somebody in a position of authority perpetrates a strong interpersonal unfairness against a subordinate, such as harassing him or her. What researchers have also shown is that socio-moral disgust has been built by evolution on the basis of the primitive emotion of oral disgust. Because of this similarity, socio-moral disgust makes people’s faces involuntarily react in the same way as when they experience oral disgust even if no oral danger is at hand (Chapman et al., 2009). Notice also that this moral emotion has a similar function of rejection as oral disgust, even if in this case it’s at a social level and so operates somewhat metaphorically: at the individual level it expresses the creation of a protective barrier against seemingly offending persons that, at the aggregate social level, effectively excludes or ostracizes people who are consensually found to be dangerous for the survival of the group because their behaviors violate strong moral norms.

Thus, if people often express the emotion of disgust (and if they are not disgusted by any Darwin-disgust-Image-3contaminant food, beverage or odor), this plausibly means that they often feel socio-moral disgust. But why should they experience this emotion? This may have to do with the danger they feel regarding the violations of purity and moral norms in the way they define them. If those are defined in a restrictive way to protect from a world that seems hazardous, this implies that many behaviors may appear as morally disgusting, for example abortion, homosexuality, disobedience to authority, pacifism, immigration, divorce, some forms of contemporary music, modern art, compassion… (Inbar et al., 2009) The list can be endless. The problem is that the emotion of socio-moral disgust makes one motivated to exclude and reject the people who engage in these behaviors. Thus, if one usually experiences socio-moral disgust, this means that he or she judges many behaviors to be immoral and as a consequence excludes many people in society from his or her circle of moral regard.

It may not be by chance that it is an extreme right-wing political leader such as Jean-Marie Lepen in France who often expresses disgust. There may be a direct link between this emotion and extreme-right political beliefs: disgust maybe the external sign of a whole psychological mechanism based on a fear of danger, the belief in rigid moral rules and the motivation to exclude people who do not behave according to these moral rules. Research has indeed shown that conservatives are more likely to feel moral disgust than liberals (Inbar et al., 2009). Notice however that if disgust has the function of expelling or excluding others, by definition, it shouldn’t also attract people. This may explain why extreme right wing political beliefs don’t attract many people, at least under normal circumstances. But in a time of a societal and economic crisis, as is the case these days, people may be more prone to feel that their environment is dangerous, and as a result restrict their way of defining moral norms, experience more socio-moral disgust and be more inclined to reject others. In France for example, a recent poll has shown that the extreme right-wing party “Le Front National” is less and less considered as a danger to democracy (Mestre, 2013). You can identify this trend yourself by looking at people’s faces around you. If you notice that faces in the crowd are more often than not a mask of the primitive emotion of disgust, you could be right to expect hostility to become the common tone of casual interactions and social exclusion to become the norm.

 

Berrod T. (2007) Coupez le son ! Le charisme politique. DVD, Studio Canal Video.

Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M., & Anderson, A. K. (2009). In bad taste: Evidence for the oral origins of moral disgust. Science, 323(5918), 1222-1226.

Inbar, P., Pizarro, D. A., & Bloom, P. (2009). Conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Cognition and emotion, 23(4), 714-725.

Mestre A. (2013). Le FN de Marine Le Pen se banalise à droite. Le Monde, 6 février.

Rozin, P., Imada, S., Haidt, J., & Mccauley, C. (1997). Body, psyche, and culture: The relationship between disgust and morality. Psychology and Developing Societies, 9(1), 107-131.

Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S., Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: A mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(4), 574-586.

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