Smell a Rat, Vote for One Too? Scientists Link Loathing of Body Odor to Fascism

People revolted by smell of others’ sweat, urine are drawn to authoritarian leadership, Stockholm researchers find

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Urinals inspired by the Rolling Stones in a Paris bar, October 15, 2015: Swedish scientists report that people disgusted by bad odors such as sweat and urine have a penchant for dictatorial leaders.
Urinals: Scientists report that people disgusted by others' bad odors such as urine have a penchant for dictatorial leaders.Credit: \ REUTERS
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Does bad body odor, at least emanating from other people, make you heave? You might be fascist, implies a paper by Stockholm University scientists and published in the Royal Society Open Science journal on Tuesday.

“People who are easily disgusted by body odors are also drawn to authoritarian political leaders,” explain Jonas Olofsson and his scent-and-psychology research team at the Swedish university.

That’s quite a twist on aromatherapy – the dubious art of evoking positive feelings in humans through exposure to a pleasing odor. Aroma-psychotherapy, anyone?

The study was based on a scale rating levels of disgust for body odors, one’s own and others’. The scale was used in a wide-ranging survey administered online in different countries, together with questions on a person’s political bent.

In the United States, for example, participants were asked how they planned to vote in the 2016 presidential race. It turned out that people more easily disgusted by bad smells were also more likely to vote for Donald Trump, the researchers claim.

Not in my back yard

Why might acute aversion to the smell of stale urine or sweat correlate – strongly at that – to support for societies led by despotic leaders? Perhaps the origin is the deep-seated instinct to avoid infectious diseases, suggest the scientists.

“There was a solid connection between how strongly someone was disgusted by smells and their desire to have a dictator-like leader who can suppress radical protest movements and ensure that different groups ‘stay in their places,’” the team writes.

With protesters isolated, contact between groups in society is minimized and so, therefore, is the probability of catching something nasty.

Revulsion is actually a survival characteristic; without it, we might eat rotting foods. In other words, disgust protects us against hazards.

Supporters of President Donald Trump cheering as he arrives in Florida, December 22, 2017. Americans more easily disgusted by bad smells were also more likely to vote for Trump, researchers found.Credit: Carlos Barria / Reuters

The researchers had theorized they would find connections between disgust (a reaction to “pathogen cues”) and how people would prefer society to be organized – and they found it.

The team was intrigued by the correlation between loathing bad smells and leaning toward Trump.

“We thought that was interesting because Donald Trump talks frequently about how different people disgust him. He thinks that women are disgusting and that immigrants spread disease, and it comes up often in his rhetoric,” Olofsson wrote. “It fits with our hypothesis that his supporters would be more easily disgusted themselves.”

Co-author Marco Tullio Liuzza from Magna Graecia University of Catanzaro, Italy, stated he hopes the findings can shed light on the emotional determinants of “outgroup” derogation – aggression against “deviants” and the belittlement of “others.”

So, if we hate bad body odors, are we doomed to political extremism? Perfume, apparently, won’t do the trick, but we need not be doomed. Adaptation is what our brains are partly for. Even deep-seated political belief can change, Olofsson suggests: “It’s not carved in stone. Quite the opposite; beliefs can be updated when we learn new things.”

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