Sexual Disgust Trumps Pathogen Disgust in Predicting Voter Behavior During the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election

Joseph Billingsley, Debra Lieberman, Joshua M. Tybur

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Why is disgust sensitivity associated with socially conservative political views? Is it because socially conservative ideologies mitigate the risks of infectious disease, whether by promoting out-group avoidance or by reinforcing norms that sustain antipathogenic practices? Or might it be because socially conservative ideologies promote moral standards that advance a long-term, as opposed to a short-term, sexual strategy? Recent attempts to test these two explanations have yielded differing results and conflicting interpretations. Here, we contribute to the literature by examining the relationship between disgust sensitivity and political orientation, political party affiliation, and an often overlooked outcome—actual voter behavior. We focus on voter behavior and affiliation for the 2016 U.S. presidential election to determine whether pathogen or sexual disgust better predicts socially conservative ideology. Although many prominent aspects of Donald Trump’s campaign—particularly his anti-foreign message—align with the pathogen-avoidance model of conservatism, we found that pathogen-related disgust sensitivity exerted no influence on political ideology, political party affiliation, or voter behavior, after controlling for sexual disgust sensitivity. In contrast, sexual disgust sensitivity was associated with increased odds of voting for Donald Trump versus each other major presidential candidate, as well as with increased odds of affiliating with the Republican versus the Democratic or Libertarian parties. In fact, for every unit increase in sexual disgust sensitivity, the odds of a participant voting for Trump versus Clinton increased by approximately 30%. It seems, then, that sexual disgust trumps pathogen disgust in predicting socially conservative voting behavior.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEvolutionary Psychology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018


  • disgust sensitivity
  • pathogen avoidance
  • sexual strategies
  • social conservatism
  • voter behavior

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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