There are very few things that I can complain about regarding my childhood. I had wonderful parents. Lovely people, really. And this makes their heinous breach of parental olfactory responsibilities all the more incomprehensible. You remember Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoons? That was me. I think you can even make out the haze of stink plumes faintly surrounding my carcass in some old family photos.
The first time I realized that I smelled a bit ripe was during a soccer game when I was about 9. I was the goalie picking daisies while our team dominated the other end of the field, and in my solitude I caught a whiff of what can only be described as a cross between my unshaven grandfather in Florida who liked to eat raw onions like they were apples and the soggy eau-de-urea woodchip shavings clumped in the corners of my hamster’s cage. “What the hell is that smell?” I thought to myself, genuinely perplexed. Lifting my arms revealed the source of these toxic fumes, a fact that simultaneously fascinated and repulsed me. I think I was left so woozy by my own stench that I forgot to share the news with my parents, who might have coughed up 99 cents for a stick of deodorant for me.
Still, you’d think that at least by the time I was in middle school and one of my friends had pieced together the similarities between my particular presence and his experiences with one of the world’s smelliest cheeses, their little Limburger child would have offended their nasal cavities enough to sit me down and have a frank talk about my “irregular” showering habits. But it took a startlingly forthright female classmate to patiently explain to me the basic principles of armpit hygiene and to suggest that, just perhaps, daily showers and deodorant wouldn’t be bad investments for my social life.
In any event, according to new research by the psychologists Yoel Inbar, David Pizarro and Paul Bloom, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t come out of the closet until these malodorous life lessons were completed and I smelled like a freshly cut pine tree, or else my unholy aroma would have confounded my acceptance as a gay teen. In a study published last year in the journal Emotion, these authors investigated the relationship between feelings of disgust and attitudes toward gays and lesbians, among several other hot-button topics circulating in today’s politicized atmosphere. A long line of studies had confirmed a strong connection between disgust and moral reasoning, but very few of these had involved experiments in which feelings of disgust to unrelated sources were elicited prior to gauging participants’ opinions.
The experiment was relatively brief and straightforward. Sixty-one heterosexual undergraduates (50 women, 11 men) were randomly assigned to one of two conditions, which, for the sake of clarity, we’ll call simply the “stink” or “no-stink” conditions. The participants were told that they’d merely be answering a survey on their social and political attitudes, and had no idea that the critical manipulation in the study was actually the presence or absence of a noxious ambient odor in the room while they answered these sensitive questions. (Actually, at the end of the study, two people said they guessed the smell had something to do with the experiment, so their data were excluded from the analyses.)
For those students unlucky enough to find themselves in the stink condition, a research assistant snuck into the 600-square-foot lab room just beforehand and applied a commercially available novelty stink spray to a trash can in the corner. (The phenomenology of this smell was—I got the sense from speaking to one of the authors—vaguely akin to the effluvium leaking from the threatening anus of a patient in the ER who’d just ingested an enormous bowl of chilli with questionable contents.) The remaining half of the participants was tested in the same room, sans the stink.
The first thing that all were asked to complete was a “feeling thermometer,” which assessed, by degree of “social warmth,” how they felt toward various groups on a scale of 0 (Very Cold) to 100 (Very Warm). Not that these groups are mutually exclusive, nor was this an exhaustive list of social categories, but for the sake of the experiment these groups were boiled down into 19 possible targets of evaluation. They included “Gay Men,” “Lesbians,” “Straight Men,” “Straight Women,” “European Americans,” “the Elderly,” “Immigrants,” “College Students,” “African Americans,” “Midwesterners,” “Athletes,” and “Southerners,” among others. Presentation of groups on the list was randomized to prevent any possible order effects—in other words, across both conditions, some people saw “Lesbians” in the 17th spot in the list, others saw this as the 3rd group listed, and so on.
And the same type of randomization was done for the items in the next section of the survey completed by the participants, in which they were asked, on a scale of 1 (Completely disagree) to 7 (Completely agree), how they felt about several polarizing contemporary issues, including gay marriage, abortion, and the war in Iraq. There were two other parts to the study. The first of these simply asked the participants to rate themselves on their degree of political conservativeness (a seven-point scale from “Extremely Liberal” to “Extremely Conservative”). And finally, those in the stink condition were asked just how disgusting they found the smell in the room. Alas, they all noticed it and indeed found it disgusting.
So what exactly was the researcher’s hypothesis, again? There were two key possibilities, really. It could be that the disgusting odor caused a general negativity effect across the board; in other words, compared to being in a perfectly odor-free room, being confined to a small area that smells like flatulence makes everyone cranky about everything. If this were the case, then the disgust cue should produce especially negative evaluations of all the socially disenfranchised groups (not only gays and lesbians, but also black people and the elderly, for instance). The alternative hypothesis, and the one actually supported by the findings from this study, was that the odor would trigger negative judgements of only the homosexuals.
Independent of the gender of the participants and their political orientation, those who’d been randomly assigned to the stink condition expressed significantly less warmth (an average feeling-thermometer rating of about 57) towards gay men than did those in the no stink condition (a 70 on the warmth scale). This statistically meaningful effect wasn’t found for any of the other social groups used in the study, although the data trended in this direction for lesbians, too.
The smell didn’t influence participants’ attitudes toward specific political issues, such as gay marriage, so that’s one good thing. But the disgust prime did make all of these heterosexual students from a major Northeastern University less sympathetic—or at least, “less warm”—to gay men. “Our results highlight the power of disgust to affect attitudes even among political liberals,” the authors point out in assessing their findings, “who are more likely than political conservatives to believe that one should not rely on feelings of disgust when making moral judgements.”
In fact, while the link was already well-known, the study is one of the first to demonstrate a direct, separate causal role of disgust in moral reasoning. Being aware of the powerful influence of disgust in the social domain is a vital first step in correcting moralistic fallacies stemming from gut feelings. Yet while the anti-gay disgust effect is real enough, interpreting precisely why it’s such a potent force behind the social oppression of homosexuals in particular isn’t clear. The researchers concede that more work is necessary to tease apart competing explanations, but one of the study’s authors, Cornell University’s David Pizarro, emailed me his thoughts:
I think what's happening is that the social category of “gay men” (and to a lesser extent, gay women) is one that is defined by the sexual act. In this study, gay men were at a paradoxical disadvantage because we didn’t have other groups defined by their sexual act. Given that—perhaps for incest avoidance, or for disease avoidance more broadly—sex seems to be especially influenced by purity and disgust, I think that if any other social group were to be defined by their sexual act, we might see disgust influencing participants’ attitudes about them, too. I tell my class to imagine if the first thing they learned about a person is that he or she frequently masturbated to pregnant women. The sexual disgust response would likely eclipse every other aspect of the person, such as their also being a fireman, a pharmacist, or Irish.
I think Pizarro is on the right track. Yet I do wonder what might have happened if these scientists had used an odor other than faux fart. I mean, perhaps the implicit thought of anal sex in the participants’ minds, coupled with an, ahem, specific “genre” of odor that emanates from the very orifice employed in the stereotypical sex act of gay men, left a particularly chilly frost on these heterosexuals’ feeling thermometer when considering us. Of course, it’s not an act common to all gay men, (e.g., gay virgins), nor are heterosexuals uninvited to that particular party, but good or bad, it's the first thing that comes to many people’s heads when thinking about gay men. The lesbian effect wasn’t as strong, after all, and perhaps the smell of, say, expired fish might have similarly tilted the scale against my gay female friends. Another way to get at this might be an age-modified study, assessing pre-sex educated children’s warmth toward these different social groups. If the effect is odor-general and isn’t about the specific sex act per se, then those naïve to the mechanics of sex should display a pattern of results similar to the adult participants.
To crack this case for now, maybe on odd days I’ll return to my rancid youth by tossing the deodorant and taking a break from all that showering business. I’ll introduce myself to random strangers as gay, letting them breathe it all in and making a mental note of just how swiftly these folks pull away from my handshake versus those who get the same greeting, only with my ambrosial glands accompanying it instead.