Disease, Disgust, and Disdain: Analyzing the Relationship Between Disgust and Ethnic Outgroup Hostility During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Beyond its disastrous public health impact, Covid-19 has also amplified societal tensions. One such tension is increased hostility and prejudice towards ethnic outgroups. These negative outgroup attitudes are triggered by anxiety and anger, but also frequently evoke the emotion of disgust. The pandemic therefore emphasizes an important dynamic at the heart of political psychology: How do negative emotions increase outgroup hostility, and how can we mitigate these mechanisms? Moreover, the pandemic has also highlighted the need to move beyond frequently studied emotions such as anger and anxiety and explore additional emotions such as disgust.
Connecting disgust and negative outgroup evaluations is an increasingly fertile field of research. Existing work shows that individuals with higher disgust sensitivity are more conservative (Inbar et al., 2012), have higher levels of homophobia (Inbar et al., 2009; Terrizzi et al., 2010) and islamophobia (Choma et al., 2012). Disgust also polarizes political attitudes (Clifford, 2019) and amplifies ethnocentric attitudes (Navarrete & Fessler, 2006).
Existing research, however, needs to be extended in at least two important ways. Most importantly, it remains unclear how generalized emotions interact with societal context to become targeted, and how this process facilitates the activation of hostile outgroup attitudes. Secondly, few studies have investigated the link between disgust and hostility towards ethnic outgroups for other minorities, and therefore if disgust and disgust sensitivity connect to evaluations of specific ethnic outgroups (rather than generalized “other ethnic” groups).
Our paper aims to answer these questions using observational and experimental data from Germany.
Study 1 explores the relationship between individuals’ disgust sensitivity, emotional responses to the pandemic, and negative outgroup attitudes using a nationally representative panel survey of 3000 Germans, oversampling respondents which belong to ethnic minorities. Controlling for personality traits, political orientation, and socio-demographics, we expect that higher disgust sensitivity will lead to greater levels of disgust and anxiety in response to the pandemic, hence more negative evaluations of ethnic outgroups. Beyond simple correlational analysis, we apply structural equation modeling to identify the complex interplay between latent factors, an addition that is particularly important given increasing concerns about different subtypes of disgust sensitivity (Olatunji et al., 2008) and ethnic outgroup hostility.
Study 2 uses a survey experiment to focus more explicitly on causal mechanisms connecting emotional responses to the pandemic and increased outgroup hostility. Beyond an analysis of outgroup-focused emotions, we draw on Hodson et al. (2013) to argue that even non-targeted emotions can play in shaping subsequent outgroup evaluations. We expect that increased disgust in response to the pandemic could increase negative evaluations of ethnic outgroups, even when the initial feeling of disgust was not explicitly linked to the evaluated outgroup. Using a 3 by 2 factorial design, we prime respondents affective state through both targeted and non-targeted anger, anxiety, and disgust stimuli, assessing their effect on subsequent outgroup evaluations. We expect that respondents in the disgust conditions will have more negative outgroup evaluations, particularly if they already have relatively conservative outgroup attitudes and higher levels of disgust sensitivity.