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September 19, 2012

Prof: Be wary when 'disgust' tactics used in campaigning

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Political candidates may use disgust as a way to attack, undermine or discredit their opponents when campaigning, but the emotional tool is dehumanizing, says a Purdue University expert.

"Disgust can be effective in persuading and influencing people, and has been used throughout history as a tool of oppression," says Daniel R. Kelly, an associate professor of philosophy who specializes in cognitive science. "Flagrant uses can be found in the past, with egregious and well-known examples coming from Nazi propaganda designed to dehumanize and direct disgust against Jewish people. But more subtle appeals to disgust are still made today, often in conjunction with attempts to cast a group of people as outsiders, and thus not deserving of equal treatment or the full spectrum of rights. When used in a political context, it can be thought of as analogous to fear mongering."

Kelly, who is author of "Yuck! The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust," says disgust is a powerful tool that elicits aversion.

"When most people think of disgust, they think of visceral stuff like bodily waste or germs, but research from the past 20 years has revealed that disgust can exert a subliminal influence on social and moral judgments," Kelly says. "If people are disgusted by something, they are likely to think it is dirty, tainted, unnatural or just wrong. Political rhetoric that excites disgust is a powerful tool that can be used to discredit or demonize an opponent or position. A common way to trigger the emotion is to portray someone as infecting the values or integrity of one's own social group."

People, including voters, should be aware of how disgust affects the social process and the judgments they make, he says.

"I think we should all be suspicious of drawing moral conclusions from disgust reactions, our own or anyone else's," Kelly says. "Feeling grossed out by spiders doesn't imply there's anything morally wrong with spiders, and merely feeling queasy about, say tongue piercings or stem cell research shouldn't be taken as a reason to think there's anything morally wrong with either of those either. There might be other reasons, of course, but when it comes to deciding the morality of such practices, disgust is irrelevant."

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: Daniel R. Kelly, drkelly@purdue.edu