Individuals who are more sensitive to disgust are more likely to hold negative attitudes towards gay men and lesbian women, according to new cross-cultural research published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations. The findings provide evidence that antigay prejudice is related in part to pathogen avoidance.
“I became interested in prejudice towards gay men and lesbian women a couple of years after I became familiar with evolutionary psychology, maybe around 2010,” explained study author Florian van Leeuwen, an assistant professor at Tilburg University.
“I could understand explanations of romantic jealousy and intra-sexual competition for mates. But I did not understand why heterosexual males would benefit from negative attitudes and aggressive behaviors towards gay men. From the perspective of heterosexual men, gay men are not competition on the mating market, so why the disapproval of their sexual preference? What is going on here?”
The behavioral immune system appears to be one reason. While the physical immune system evolved to defend against pathogens that have entered the body, some animals (including humans) also evolved a behavioral immune system that motivates them to avoid contact with other organisms that may carry infectious pathogens.
“One explanation of why people might have negative views about homosexuality is that they associate gay men with infectious diseases, such as HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases. Another explanation is that people associate homosexuality with sexual behavior that they find disgusting,” Van Leeuwen said.
“Previous research into these explanations showed that people who have a stronger tendency to feel disgusted (people who are more disgust sensitive) tend to have more prejudice towards gay men and lesbian women. However, this previous research involved mostly people from the USA and Canada.”
The researchers analyzed data from a large cross-cultural survey that included measures of pathogen disgust sensitivity and attitudes toward gay men. In particular, the participants indicated how disgusted they felt by various activities that could result in an infection, such as accidentally touching another person’s bloody cut. They also reported their feelings of warmth towards gay men and lesbian women and responded to the questions: “Should homosexuals have the exact same marriage rights as heterosexuals?” and “Should society accept homosexuality?” The sample included 11,200 adult heterosexuals from 31 countries.
“This study was a group effort,” Van Leeuwen said. “This research was part of a large cross-cultural research project on disgust sensitivity led by Josh Tybur and Yoel Inbar and that included many other researchers from across the world.”
The researchers found small but statistically significant relationships between disgust sensitivity and antigay attitudes. “In short, we found the same relation as in previous work — people who are more disgust sensitive are also more prejudiced toward gay men and lesbian women — and this relation does not seem to differ much across countries,” Van Leeuwen told PsyPost.
The study controlled for variables such as political ideology, participant sex, and religiosity. But as with any study, the new research includes some caveats.
“We did not include measures of what aspects of homosexuality people object to,” Van Leeuwen explained. “Do they dislike gay men because they perceive them as violating sexual norms? Or religious norms? But just norms in general? Or maybe they dislike gay men because they believe these men are bad role models for children? We did not measure such variables.”
“There are many questions that still need to be addressed,” Van Leeuwen continued. “We performed some secondary analyzes to better understand why disgust sensitivity is positively correlated with prejudice towards gay men and lesbian women. The results were consistent with a more general process whereby prejudice towards gay people is a downstream consequence of people’s reproductive strategies. People differ in how much they are invested in monogamous reproduction. The idea is that those most invested in monogamy, have most to lose from their partner abandoning them and their children.”
“So these people might strategically attempt to reduce others’ sexual promiscuity, for example, by creating norms that maintain monogamous relations. I think this is an interesting explanation and there is some evidence for it. But at this point, we don’t really know if it holds up as an explanation of prejudice towards gay men and lesbian women across cultures around the world.”
The study, “Disgust sensitivity relates to attitudes toward gay men and lesbian women across 31 nations“, was authored by Florian van Leeuwen, Yoel Inbar, Michael Bang Petersen, Lene Aarøe, Pat Barclay, Fiona Kate Barlow, Mícheál de Barra, D. Vaughn Becker, Leah Borovoi, Jongan Choi, Nathan S. Consedine, Jane Rebecca Conway, Paul Conway, Vera Cubela Adoric, Ekin Demirci, Ana María Fernández, Diogo Conque Seco Ferreira, Keiko Ishii, Ivana Jakšić, Tingting Ji, Inga Jonaityte, David MG Lewis, Norman P. Li, Jason C. McIntyre, Sumitava Mukherjee, Justin H. Park, Boguslaw Pawlowski, David Pizarro, Pavol Prokop, Gerasimos Prodromitis, Markus J. Rantala, Lisa M. Reynolds, Bonifacio Sandin, Barış Sevi, Narayanan Srinivasan, Shruti Tewari, Jose C. Yong, Iris Žeželj, and Joshua M. Tybur.