William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Can A Disgusting Smell Turn You Conservative And Against Gay “Marriage”?

Meanwhile, inside the Republican training camp...

Meanwhile, inside the Republican training camp…

Can sniffing a sticky stained organic tote bag that has seen one too many trips to Whole Foods turn you into the kind of activist that haunts street corners and says, “Excuse me, sir. Do you have a minute for snail darter rights?” Science says it might.

No, I’m only kidding. Disgust makes people conservatives, not progressives. So says Thomas Adams, Patrick Stewart, and John Blanchar in their peer-reviewedDisgust and the Politics of Sex: Exposure to a Disgusting Odorant Increases Politically Conservative Views on Sex and Decreases Support for Gay Marriage” in PLOS One.

These fellows found folks on the Internet, promising to pay volunteers ten bucks American if they’d come in and fill out questionnaires. Fifty-seven mostly white Christians came. Thirty of the volunteers, 21 one of which were women, in groups of 4 to 8, went into a room sized precisely “10’x10’x17.5′” and answered queries. The other 27, only 9 of which were women, went into the same room and answered the same questions, but the researchers stank up the room beforehand with butyric acid. Think cheesy pinto beans and too much beer.

To make the questions scientific, the researchers gave them names: the Three Domains of Disgust Scale, the Conservative Liberal Scale, the Wilson-Patterson short-response format. Scores were assigned to the answers with the full knowledge that if there weren’t scores, the study wouldn’t be publishable, not to mention you can’t get wee p-values from scoreless questions.

Each volunteer was asked “to select a number ranging from 0 ‘Not at all’ to 8 ‘Very much so’ to indicate the degree to which they currently felt ‘disgusted, nauseated, repulsed.'”

To be properly scientific, each volunteer who said he was disgusted-nauseated-repulsed to the tune of, say, 6 had to be just as disgusted-nauseated-repulsed as every other volunteer who answered 6. It wouldn’t do that one person’s 6 was another’s 4. Was that the case here? And is it true that stepping from a disgusted-nauseated-repulsed of 3 to a disgusted-nauseated-repulsed of 4 is the same as moving from a 4 to 5 and so on?

Hey. Asking questions like these slows the flow of Science. What are you, some kind of Philistine?

That’s why it was perfectly legitimate to ask four more questions about gay “marriage” on a scale from 1 (“strongly agree”) to 5 (“strongly disagree”), such as, “I should be allowed to marry whomever I want to, even if it is a member of the same sex” and “Same sex marriage should be legalized nationwide.”

The differences in means of the scores of those questions gave wee p-values. The stink-free group, which was, do not forget, predominately women, had smaller means, i.e. were more in favor of abandoning tradition.

The amazed researchers said “that the disgust odor induction caused attitudes to literally shift to the right”, i.e. to shift answers to higher numbers.

Did you catch it? Caused. The stinky room caused the people to turn conservative. Caused. How? “When disgust is evoked, the behavioral immune system engages avoidance to prevent infection…and appears to moralize sexual conduct in ways that underlie conservative values of purity and sanctity.” If this is true, then Los Angeles and other smelly pollution-choked cities should be solidly conservative.

Funny that every survey I checked (e.g., here and here) shows women far ahead of men in support of same-sex “marriage.” So could the two-thirds versus one-thirds women in the stink and stink-free groups account for the results? Here’s what the authors say:

Disgust has an important, causal relationship with political attitudes concerning sexual conduct. In an experiment manipulating odor-based disgust, participants exposed to the smell of butyric acid reported increased subjective disgust and more politically conservative attitudes concerning gay marriage, premarital sex, pornography, and Biblical truth. Rejection of gay marriage was a particularly strong response to the disgust-inducing odor, perhaps because of the connection between homosexuality and perceptions of sexual impurity.

Women? What women? But look at those results. The authors could have ran with alternate headline: Exposure to Farts Causes Increase in Belief of Biblical Truths. The authors say, “The finding that belief in Biblical truth was greater among participants in the disgust odor condition was unexpected but is nonetheless consistent with previous work showing a relation between disgust and scrupulosity or being careful to avoid doing wrong.”

I’ve pointed out many times that academics are amazed people disagree with them, and they are always seeking to discover how this could be. Must be genetic, or biological, or due to stressors in the environment. It couldn’t be that citizens came to the reasoned conclusion that progressivism is sorely lacking. Nah. It must instead be that smelling a fart can turn you into a Bible-believing Republican.

Update: The Press

Incidentally, this “research” was widely picked up in the media. The Daily Mail reported “Can a disgusting smell make you conservative and homophobic? Researchers find stench of sweat and rancid butter can influence our views.

The Huffington Post said “Smelly Environment Can Increase Homophobic, Politically Conservative Views According To Study“.

Many other places repeated (what I am assuming was) the same press release, but notice that most translated the authors’ “Decreases Support for Gay Marriage” into “Increase Homophobia.” The politicization of Science does not only happen in climatology.


  1. If I understand this correctly, no test run was done with the survey without stink, but rather two distinct groups were used, so whether or not the smell changed the beliefs is completely unknown. However, if we go with the idea that the smell caused this, we need to run the test on progressives and see if they become homophobic and conservative. If so, perhaps we can introduce the smell in various haunts of the progressives and just biologically send them over to the conservative side. Maybe?

  2. umm?

    Someone should ask the authors of this masterpiece: “The “stinkingest” cities in the world (Beijing, Hamhung (N.K.), Ho Chi City) are all run by communists. When can we expect the revulsion to have an effect?”

  3. “A University of Arkansas representative told Campus Reform that the school does not endorse the results of the study per se. However, the flagship state school does endorse its professors publishing their work in peer-reviewed journals.” — Eric Owens, The Daily Caller.

    Glad we got that straightened out.

  4. So the dog that returned to its vomit was a progressive? As was the pig that returned to rolling in the mire? Works for me!

  5. Briggs

    May 28, 2014 at 5:17 pm


    Bayes is good, as is using statistics to make a prediction. But this quote, near the top, is very odd:

    “What’s interesting about this story is that their analysis pointed to a location not far from the last known position, in an area that had almost certainly been searched soon after the disaster.”

    And a quick glance of the paper makes it appear that the peak in the posterior was right over the last known location.

  6. Brandon Gates

    May 28, 2014 at 7:17 pm


    If I understand this correctly, no test run was done with the survey without stink, but rather two distinct groups were used, so whether or not the smell changed the beliefs is completely unknown.

    Yes, two distinct groups, and you make a good point. However, if you ask the same person the same questions twice, most will naturally attempt to answer the questions the same way they did before for consistency, which introduces a potential bias.

    To study that, they could have used four groups:

    1) smelly room then non-smelly room
    2) non-smelly room then smelly room
    3) smelly room twice
    4) non-smelly room twice

    To be really rigorous, they could have also done the same experimental procedure as already done, for a total of six groups.

    Ten bucks here, ten bucks there, pretty soon it adds up to some serious money.

    The authors do discuss the potential limitations of their protocol in the Introduction:

    Evidence from Smith et al. [2] and similar research [9] is compelling but causal interpretations are not possible given their utilization of correlational designs. This limitation was rectified by Inbar and colleagues [3] who experimentally tested the effects of odor induced disgust on self-reported warmth toward homosexuals.

    One would have to read the links to find out how they were rectified. I haven’t.

    However, if we go with the idea that the smell caused this, we need to run the test on progressives and see if they become homophobic and conservative. If so, perhaps we can introduce the smell in various haunts of the progressives and just biologically send them over to the conservative side. Maybe?

    I have several concerns about this study not covered by Briggs’ comments. As far as I know. I sort of stopped reading here:

    “When disgust is evoked, the behavioral immune system engages avoidance to prevent infection…and appears to moralize sexual conduct in ways that underlie conservative values of purity and sanctity.” If this is true, then Los Angeles and other smelly pollution-choked cities should be solidly conservative.


    And nope, now I’m sure he didn’t cover much else because there wasn’t much left to read in his post, and I’ve also now read the entire study. So here goes:

    1) The majority of the participants were conservative Christians. I couldn’t find what percentage though, but that’s a nit compared to the fact that they didn’t have a 50-50 ish distribution of religious/political attitudes in the sample.

    2) The study was done in Arkansas, and I don’t have to do much statistics at all to tell you that mid-Bible belt is going to skew attitudes well to the right/fundamentalist political/religious spectrum. I guess that’s good in the sense that it might take some noise out of the signal, but prompts a whole lot of cautionary notes about extending tenuous findings in one local population to an entire US population.

    3) In Briggs’ statement above he alludes to a legitimate concern given the title of the study and the second line of the abstract: “Several recent studies have suggested that pathogen disgust may be a causal mechanism underlying social conservatism.” It’s would be a stupid bias to put in a study such as this on purpose.

    4) In addition to (3), the survey questions used appear to be ill-designed in the sense that they’re lopsided toward things expected to upset conservative Christians. They try to pass this off as being interested in particular social issues, but if you don’t keep the questions balanced, you still bias the results because the test participants become too aware of what they’re being tested on. You need at least a few ringers in there that don’t have anything to do whatsoever with what you’re studying, and you need to balance it by asking equal numbers of questions designed to both disgust, and show warmth toward each opposing ideology, no matter what the mix of those ideologies in a given experimental run.

    The authors allude this in the first sentence of the Absract: “Disgust has been implicated as a potential causal agent underlying socio-political attitudes and behaviors.”

    As well, in the leading sentence of the second paragraph of the Introduction: “It has been posited that the Behavioral Immune System, which uses the physiological response of disgust as its first line of behavioral defense, shapes political attitudes and resultant policy preferences [5], [16].”

    Making the study language and survey questions as neutral as possible throughout despite the lopsided bias in the sample groups would have made have made this study less poor than it is. Perhaps I damn with faint praise?

    Study flaws aside, I wouldn’t chuck out the premises entirely. It makes sense given what I learned, in much more neutral and objective fashion, in sociology, psychology and biological science classes in college. Otherness, and especially “strange” or “weird” otherness, and particularly sudden and/or unexpected exposure to those stimuli cause all sorts of defensive recoiling and “ewww yuk” fear-based kinds of reactions. Since we don’t like feeling defensive, anger and hostility posturing is a common result.

    The title of this post, and the further comments about Los Angeles smog turning people into conservative Christians is silly, but understandable. Especially since he’s been logging some hours in the mecca of liberal gaydom of late.

    Of course, all of us here already know that Los Angeles smog has turned everyone who lives there into to ravenous atheist global warming alarmist chicken-little libtards. Once his head has cleared from all the second-hand pot smoke and wafts of patchouli oil he’s been huffing when walking from the Castro to the Haight while dodging Whole Foods customers driving Priuses, I’m sure he’ll come to his senses.


  7. Brandon: One can somewhat compensate for the bias in repeat questions by not repeating them but using “equivalent” questions that are just dissimilar enough to hopefully avoid the bias.
    Your other points make sense. It seems a pretty worthless study. Maybe next time they can find something more socially relevent. Long term exposure should certainly be studied–more grant money (/sarc).

  8. Brandon Gates

    May 28, 2014 at 9:44 pm

    Sheri: To your first paragraph, that sounds like a reasonable idea. I know very little, like almost nothing, about surveys except from what I learned in marketing class. My sociology classes didn’t cover them from what I remember, but the principles are quite similar.

    What I do remember is that doing a good survey is art more than science sometimes. If you’re looking to get a particular answer with your survey, you can bias the results by biasing the questions. That’s why you often see slightly different results from various political polling outlets, and why it’s necessary to read polls from a variety of them.

    Flip side of that is if you want to lead someone into doubting what a set of numbers are telling you about reality, you pick on the studies that do the worst job of doing it you can find. A dead ringer is to look for leading or biased survey questions and then say, “Aha! These politically motivated researchers are all trying to sell us a bill of goods!”

    Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    I’d say rather poor study but not worthless. Somewhere along the way, may have been right here, I picked up an anecdote about a professor mentoring a PhD candidate: “90% of all studies are crap.”

    “How do you know that?” said the student.

    “By the time you’ve reached this point in my career, you’ll have figured it out on your own,” replied the professor.

    My view is that the 90% serve as examples of what not to do, though they may have some good ideas worth looking into. That’s what I think of this paper.

    Why to study it? I don’t know exactly. Crowd control for when we’re ankle deep in sea water and the food riots break out? A conspiracy to turn hippies into reverse-Crusaders when the Christians don’t go for legalizing cross-species marriage licenses? 🙂 🙂 🙂

    I do share one big complaint with Briggs: the number of studies with non-wee pee values shoved into desk drawers for all the experiments that didn’t work.

  9. I’d bet whatever physical reaction they had to the smell was then attributed to the belief.

    For another (made up) example, if I get punched in the gut and bend over reactively, then get asked if I feel older or younger than my actual age, I’ll probably be more likely to say “older” because I’m hunched over like an old man.

    Extensive research has shown that smiling can make you feel happier, so it makes sense that making a face of disgust in reaction to a smell, consciously or unconsciously, can make you feel more disgusted with whatever else you’re stimulated by.

  10. So if I want to increase my conservative and reactionary quantitative index, all I have to do is smell my own farts?

    Isn’t there any other way?


  11. Alan McIntire

    May 29, 2014 at 7:40 am

    It looks like this study has been ridiculed to death already, but here’s my 2 cents worth. When I’m performing a dirty, unpleasant chore like changing the oil in my car, or cleaning the mud off my rotortiller, I’m more apt to be in a bad mood. I frequently express my mood in foul language .

    My first assumption is that I’m not that unusual, and others exposed to foul smells or dirty tasks are more apt to express their mood in bad language or unpopular views.

  12. Here is a strategy for GOP to win the next presidential election –
    Place a garb dumpster at the entrance of every polling place.

    Though I think being against gay marriage makes you stinky. Not the other way around.

  13. Garbage dumpster.

  14. Fletcher Christian

    May 29, 2014 at 9:04 am

    The little comment embedded in this post about “the stinky, polluted cities ought to be biased towards conservatism” does, of course, miss the point. Humans have an aversion to the sort of unpleasant smells associated with rotten food for very good reasons explained very easily by evolution. However; although a lot of cities stink, the stench is very far indeed from being the sort of biological stink that we have that sort of aversion to. In most of the area of such cities, anyway.

    Even assuming that the effect was real and repeatable, I wouldn’t expect the stench of partially-burnt hydrocarbons that hangs over far too many cities to have the same effect. On the other hand, if the questions asked were about energy policy…

  15. Of course everybody noticed the drastic increase in progressives after those smelly telephone booths were removed. Some of those could have gagged a maggot.

  16. Brandon Gates

    May 29, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    G. Rodrigues:

    No, Parker & Stone 2006 definitively settles the science. Smelling ones own farts turns you into a liberal:


    Isn’t there any other way?

    My Bible has a peculiar smell, but not unpleasant, now that I think on it. Aqua Net hairspray maybe? (Think little blue-haired old ladies …. )

  17. Michael Elias

    May 29, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    Re: Parker and Stone,

    It seems possible that rather than CAUSING liberality, the habit of smelling one’s own farts arises out of liberality in an instinctive, homeostatic impulse to correct oneself back toward moderatehood. Thus, it would make sense that there is a strong correlation between being a liberal and smelling one’s own farts, as well as between smelling one’s own farts and becoming more conservative.

  18. Brandon Gates

    May 29, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    That, sir, is brilliantly argued. It’s politics at relativistic rates of change!

  19. Brandon Gates

    May 29, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Fletcher Christian:

    Even assuming that the effect was real and repeatable, I wouldn’t expect the stench of partially-burnt hydrocarbons that hangs over far too many cities to have the same effect. On the other hand, if the questions asked were about energy policy…

    Too bad CO2 is odourless, innit. Problem is, with me, whenever a good old American muscle-car goes rumbling past, I start missing the smell of leaded gasoline.

  20. Fletcher Christian

    May 30, 2014 at 5:06 am

    Mr. Gates, if the combustion of hydrocarbons inside an IC engine was perfectly efficient you might have a point.

    As for leaded gasoline, good riddance to bad (and highly toxic) rubbish.

  21. Brandon Gates

    May 30, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Mr. Christian: perhaps we misunderstand each other. I do miss the smell of leaded gasoline. I approve of its discontinued use. I do like muscle cars — childhood memories. Nothing sounds so delicious as a 70s-era V8 firing up and burbling to a low idle as the carb heats up. Nor the pulse-inducing bone-shaking throaty growl when you downshift on the freeway entrance and mash the guzzle pedal and will the thing into the sweet spot of the torque curve. Ahh. But I drive a four-banger Honda at moderate speed and with docile acceleration. Responsible adulthood has not purged my fondest childhood and teenage thrills derived from brute-force internal combustion in the slightest, but responsible I am. I wish it didn’t have to be so.

  22. Fletcher Christian

    May 30, 2014 at 5:31 pm

    Brandon – This really is a digression, but aren’t conversions to unleaded gasoline available for virtually all engines and “lead equivalents” available for most of the rest? As for the sound of powerful engines – well, personally I prefer the banshee scream of a small, highly tuned, heavily-boosted engine at 8000+ RPM. To each his own. The last time I had a car, however, it was a small Fiat. Practicality beats dreams, mostly. 🙁

  23. Brandon Gates

    May 31, 2014 at 12:10 am

    I’m not a gearhead … that was Dad’s job. I just tore ’em up and handed him tools as he grunted and swore at my handiwork. It was a good system. Given the number of those classic cars still on the road, there’s obviously some way of making them run on corn liquor and dead dinosaurs.

    I have heard some pleasing sounds out of those small tuned boosted engines. In these parts, it’s stylish to put big can mufflers on hatches, tuned engine or not. Which completely ruins it.

    I’m too big for a Fiat or small cars in general. Probably a good thing given how I lust after zippy roadsters. Not Miatas. Something Boxterish. That would make a great mid-life crisis.

  24. I just farted.

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