Biome and Politics

October 30, 2014
Jacob Schor ND, FABNO

With the midterm elections just a few days away, I find myself ruminating on a curious set of articles and studies published over the last few years that lead me to a rather interesting perspective.

Let me start with an interesting article written by the conservative columnist David Brooks writing in the October 27, 2014 edition of the liberal New York Times.

David points out that we live in an era of such extreme political partisanship that it is now unwise to hint toward your political affiliations when applying for employment.
He writes:
“In fact, the best recent research suggests that there’s more political discrimination than there is racial discrimination.
For example, political scientists Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood gave 1,000 people student résumés and asked them which students should get scholarships. The résumés had some racial cues (membership in African-American Students Association) and some political cues (member of Young Republicans).
Race influenced decisions. Blacks favored black students 73 percent to 27 percent, and whites favored black students slightly. But political cues were more powerful. Both Democrats and Republicans favored students who agreed with them 80 percent of the time. They favored students from their party even when other students had better credentials.”

What Iyengar and Westwood measured is something called “partyism.” In experiments that measure how much people are willing to trust different kinds of people, these researchers found pervasive prejudice based on party affiliations. Political biases were stronger than their racial biases.

Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School writing last month in Bloomberg View pointed out polling data that puts a measure at just how much this has changed over time. Back in 1960, during the Goldwater vs. Kennedy election, about 5% of Republicans or Democrats responded they’d be “displeased” if their child married someone from the other party. During the 2010 election cycle, 49% of Republicans and 33% of Democrats reported they would be displeased. Nothing about this election cycle would make me believe these numbers are decreasing.

Brooks points out that these numbers are measuring far more than opposing political ideologies: “People’s essential worth is being measured by a political label: whether they should be hired, married, trusted or discriminated against.

The broad social phenomenon is that as personal life is being de-moralized, political life is being hyper-moralized. People are less judgmental about different lifestyles, but they are more judgmental about policy labels.”

Which is interesting. We now care less about race, religion, or sexual orientation; we care about which candidate a person is backing. [1]

Brooks goes on as he often does to bring us some deeper insight about this phenomenon. I want to jump to another piece of information at this point, but still you should read his article.

The intensity of political partisanship we now take for granted brings to mind a study that made the news last month. Rose McDermott, lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Political Science reported that people find the smell of other people “who hold similar political opinions to be attractive, suggesting that one of the reasons why so many spouses share similar political views is because they were initially and subconsciously attracted to each other's body odor.”[2]

In her study, 146 participants ranked the attractiveness of the body odor of unknown strong liberals or strong conservatives, without ever seeing the individuals whose smells they were evaluating.

According to Dr. McDermott, "People could not predict the political ideology of others by smell if you asked them, but they differentially found the smell of those who aligned with them more attractive. So I believe smell conveys important information about long-term affinity in political ideology that becomes incorporated into a key component of subconscious attraction." [3]

After you’ve chewed on that idea for a moment or two, remind yourself that the most important contributor to body odor are the bacteria living on your skin, in particular your axilla (that’s Latin for armpits). Could it be that humans have different biomes, populations of bacteria living on their skin, based on their political beliefs? Or take the question a step further and ask whether our political beliefs shift based on our biomes?

This may sound whacky, another of my out on a limb ruminations, but stay with me here for a few moments longer.

A few years ago, in March 2012, I recall Nicholas Kristoff, a NY Times columnist who probably smells more liberal than David Brooks, pointed out a few curious differences between the believers in opposing political ideas.

Quoting a 2008 conference presentation by Kevin Smith et al, titled, “The Ick Factor: Physiological Sensitivity to Disgust as a Predictor of Political Attitudes”, Kristoff noted that “… research suggests that conservatives are particularly attuned to threats, with a greater startle reflex when they hear loud noises. Conservatives also secrete more skin moisture when they see disgusting images, such as a person eating worms. Liberals feel disgust, too, but a bit less.
Anything that prods us to think of disgust or cleanliness also seems to have at least a temporary effect on our politics. It pushes our sanctity buttons and makes us more conservative.” [4]

Having interviewees wash their hands with soap and water before filling out a questionnaire that tested moralistic attitudes on drugs and pornography was enough to change our views. Flatulent odors can have a similar effect. Just having a hand sanitizer station in view while a person answers the questions is enough to sway our moral views. [5]

While these sorts of things, no doubt impact our psychological perspectives by eliciting basic human aversions, we should also come back to this business of the human biome.

In past years I’ve written about how certain parasitic infections, in particular toxoplasmosis, exert seeming mind control on their hosts. [6] The idea that changing bowel microbial populations through use of probiotics is no longer as ‘far out’ as it once was.

The theories that gut microbes impact mood is summarized in Vitetta’s September 2104 review, “… we build a hypothesis that in addition suggests that GIT [gastrointestinal tract] metabolites that are elaborated by the microbiome cohort may provide novel and significant avenues for efficacious therapeutic interventions for mood disorders. We posit that the microbiome in the gastrointestinal tract is implicit as an important participant for the amelioration of adverse mood conditions via the diverse metabolic activities provided by live beneficial bacteria (probiotics) as an active adjuvant treatment”. [7]

If the microbiome in our guts change the way we see the world, could those on our skins either change our views as well, or could they somehow reflect our internal microbiome?

We know that shifts in diet dramatically effect gut microbial populations so for example, shifting between being a vegan and a carnivore diet will rapidly shift gut bacterial populations. [8] This makes me ponder if there is truth behind our stereotypes of the political beliefs these varying people hold; our first assumption will be that those eating at Watercourse, the vegan place on 17th Ave., will profess more liberal views than people eating at Outback Steak House. I don’t have a citation for that idea. If you are an exception to this stereotype, there is no need to write me.

While there is little doubt that we can shift internal flora with probiotics supplements, [9] we now know that even something as simple as taking an iron supplement shifts gut bacterial populations. [10] Many of you will recall my fascination with Hirojme Kimata’s study that suggests even something as simple as watching funny movies can profoundly shift gut bacterial populations. [11] Certainly, perspiration levels and hand washing patterns over time could cause shifts in bacterial populations.

Which brings my wandering mind back to David Brooks and the idea that the growing intensity of “partyism” in our modern world and ponder whether this may be related to a greater diversity in our internal microbiomes? Could things like widespread antibiotic use, greater hygiene in some homes, consumption of specific probiotics (from yogurt to kefir), consumption of fermented foods, and other factors have acted to shift both out biomes and our political beliefs toward more disparate poles and further away from a common middle ground?

Let me stop there as this is the point in my internal rumination at which I decided it was time to get up and start my day. I’m not sure what to make of these ideas, but here on out, I will be tempted to prescribe high dose probiotics to any patient who expresses extreme political views of any leaning.

These thoughts at the least, should give you something to think about while watching political ads on television, half of which you may likely perceive as closely akin to the end products of colonic bacterial fermentation. I suppose we might conclude, it's what's on the inside that counts.

References and Links:



3. Rose McDermott, Dustin Tingley, Peter K. Hatemi. Assortative Mating on Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory Cues. American Journal of Political Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12133


5. The Ick Factor: Physiological Sensitivity to Disgust as a Predictor of Political Attitudes Kevin B. Smith 1 Douglas R. Oxley 1 Matthew V. Hibbing 2 John R. Alford 3 John R. Hibbing 1 1 Department of Political Science, University of Nebraska-Lincoln 2 Department of Political Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign 3 Department of Political Science, Rice University Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, Illinois, April 2008.Link


7. Inflammopharmacology. 2014 Sep 30. [Epub ahead of print]
The gastrointestinal tract microbiome, probiotics, and mood.
Vitetta L1, Bambling M, Alford H.

8. Diet rapidly and reproducibly alters the human gut microbiome.
David LA, Maurice CF, Carmody RN, Gootenberg DB, Button JE, Wolfe BE, Ling AV, Devlin AS, Varma Y, Fischbach MA, Biddinger SB, Dutton RJ, Turnbaugh PJ.
Nature. 2014 Jan 23;505(7484):559-63. doi: 10.1038/nature12820. Epub 2013 Dec 11.

9. Randomised clinical trial: Lactobacillus GG modulates gut microbiome, metabolome and endotoxemia in patients with cirrhosis. Bajaj JS, Heuman DM, Hylemon PB, Sanyal AJ, Puri P, Sterling RK, Luketic V, Stravitz RT, Siddiqui MS, Fuchs M, Thacker LR, et al. Aliment Pharmacol Ther. 2014 May;39(10):1113-25. doi: 10.1111/apt.12695. Epub 2014 Mar 16.

10. SCFA and gut inflammation: a randomised, placebo-controlled intervention trial in South African children. Dostal A, Baumgartner J, Riesen N, Chassard C, Smuts CM, Zimmermann MB, Lacroix C. Br J Nutr. 2014 Aug 28;112(4):547-56. doi: 10.1017/S0007114514001160. Epub 2014 Jun 11.

11. Modulation of fecal polyamines by viewing humorous films in patients with atopic dermatitis. Kimata H. Eur J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2010 Jun;22(6):724-8