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The Behavioral Immune System Shapes Political Intuitions: Why and How Individual Differences in Disgust Sensitivity Underlie Opposition to Immigration


We present, test, and extend a theoretical framework that connects disgust, a powerful basic human emotion, to political attitudes through psychological mechanisms designed to protect humans from disease. These mechanisms work outside of conscious awareness, and in modern environments, they can motivate individuals to avoid intergroup contact by opposing immigration. We report a meta-analysis of previous tests in the psychological sciences and conduct, for the first time, a series of tests in nationally representative samples collected in the United States and Denmark that integrate the role of disgust and the behavioral immune system into established models of emotional processing and political attitude formation. In doing so, we offer an explanation for why peaceful integration and interaction between ethnic majority and minorities is so hard to achieve.

Corresponding author
Lene Aarøe is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Bartholins Allé 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (
Michael Bang Petersen is Professor of Political Science, University of Aarhus, Bartholins Allé 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (
Kevin Arceneaux is Professor of Political Science, Temple University, 453 Gladfelter Hall, 1115 Polett Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19122 (
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Acknowledgements: The research reported in this article was made possible by funding from the Danish Council for Independent Research, the Velux Foundation and the Temple University Behavioral Foundations Lab. The authors would like to acknowledge the helpful guidance and advice received from Ted Brader, Ryan Enos, Stanley Feldman, John Hibbing, Leonie Huddy, Cindy Kam, Robert Kurzban, Richard Lau, Mark Schaller, Jim Sidanius, Kevin Smith, Joshua Tybur, Nicholas Valentino, participants at the Interacting Minds Seminars at Aarhus University, participants in the American Politics Colloquium at Temple University, participants at the Human Evolution Lunch Lecture at the Centre for Biocultural History at Aarhus University, participants at Evolutionary Psychology Laboratory at Harvard University, participants at the Working Group in Political Psychology and Behavior at Harvard University, the anonymous reviewers, as well as APSR co-editors Valerie J. Martinez-Ebers and Ingo Rohlfing. We are grateful to Dan Nguyen, Klaus Juul and Julie Joenson for their research assistance.

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