Supporters of US President Donald Trump are uncommonly likely to be repulsed by the smell of other people’s flatulence and armpits.
That ridiculous-sounding statement is actually one of the key findings of a serious academic study conducted by a Swedish university.
One month prior to the presidential election, Stockholm University researchers asked American adults whether they would feel repulsed if they were confronted with sweaty armpits, someone with bad breath, smelly feet, faeces, urine or farts.
They found a positive association between a higher level of disgust by bodily odours and their support for Mr Trump who, at the time the study was conducted, had pushed an agenda described as resonating with authoritarian attitudes.
So what does this actually tell us?
University of Sydney’s Sam Moreton, who researches how emotion influences political and moral attitudes, said he was not surprised by the findings.
“There is a lot of existing evidence linking disgust sensitivity to denigration of ‘out-groups’ which was a significant part of Trump’s platform,” he told The New Daily.
“The idea behind this is that as humans evolved complex social lives, the development of social disgust – the disgust you might feel towards someone who violates some social norm – piggybacked on an already existing disease avoidance mechanism (that is: the disgust you feel towards rotting foods or animals).”
So people who feel stronger physical disgust also tend to feel stronger social disgust.”
Mr Moreton said that Americans who feel a greater physical disgust towards body odour also feel more social disgust towards groups they perceive as violating social norms.
In Trump’s campaign, groups such as Muslims and Mexicans bore the brunt of these hostile feelings.
“[Mexicans] are often portrayed by Trump as violators of social norms,” he said. “Therefore [some voters] are more likely to support Trump who will protect them from this perceived threat – ‘Build the wall!’
“Obviously, disgust sensitivity is not the whole story behind political affiliation – there are lots of reasons why people support different candidates – but these findings provide evidence that disgust sensitivity is one mechanism that plays a role in Trump’s success.”
Peter Ellerton, director of the University of Queensland’s Critical Thinking Project, said one could argue that focusing too much on disgust can be detrimental, as it can overpower other attitudes and emotions.
“I would say that Trump was a master at marshalling the disgust factor in his voter base, often directed towards Hillary Clinton, and making that feeling the driving force in decision-making,” he said.
University of Western Australia’s Ullrich Ecker, who has a research interest in the psychology of misinformation, said it is well known that highly conservative people exhibit a set of characteristic personality traits and biases.
These include negativity bias, closed-mindedness, lower threat thresholds, greater need for certainty, lower ambiguity tolerance, greater punitive tendencies and higher disgust sensitivity.
“This study just seems to highlight that the disgust sensitivity also applies to visceral – as opposed to moral – disgust.”
However, political psychology researcher Dr Frank Mols said this research should be taken with a grain of salt – one “big pinch” of salt.
“We can look for all kinds of correlations and discover that there are significant differences between Trump supporters and opponents,” he said.
“We may find, say, that Trump supporters are more likely to buy yellow canaries than opponents, but this is of course hardly an explanation, let alone providing an explanation of how groups collectively make sense of the social world they live in.”