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Psychology of Coronavirus

By Alysson E. Light, PhD

Published on April 30, 2020

This article appeared on Character and Context, the blog site of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology

The other day after class, a student pulled me aside to tell me about a recent experience. She is Chinese, and while getting on our public transit in Philadelphia, a group of people started harassing her, accusing her of carrying Coronavirus and ordering her off the trolley. Another person quickly came to her defense, but she was taken aback—she’s been studying in the U. S. for years, but this was her first experience of explicit racism.

My student is not alone—there have been many of other stories of Asian and Asian American people experiencing prejudice connected to coronavirus. What is it about the current situation that is leading people to express such ugly bias?

These cases of racial prejudice and discrimination can be understood using a psychological theory involving the behavioral immune system. This theory is rooted in evolutionary psychology and is based on the fact that infectious diseases represent one of the greatest threats to human survival. Because of this constant threat of disease, human beings and other mammals have evolved a wide variety of adaptations to cope with all of the pathogens they might be exposed to.

You’re probably most familiar with our physiological immune system, which deploys immune cells and proteins to fight off our microscopic invaders. But, psychologists think that we’ve also evolved a tendency to react to signs of disease in ways that help us avoid contamination and disease. One example is the feeling of disgust we experience when we smell something rotten. When we encounter something putrid, we close our mouth, hold our nose, and move away, so we’re less likely to be infected by the microbes that are decomposing whatever is the source of the smell. This is a very beneficial response, but the behavioral immune system may motivate other behaviors that have less desirable social consequences.

In particular, evidence suggests that concerns about disease make us more likely to hold xenophobic attitudes. This reaction may reflect the same sort of evolved behavioral immune response. Around the world, populations differ in their relative immunity to various diseases, which is often a result of our immune systems being exposed to certain diseases and subsequently developing antibodies to fight them off. This means that we often have immunity to the infectious diseases carried by people who live near us and are at lower risk of becoming sick from them. But, we are less likely to have immunity to diseases carried by people who live far away from us. As a result, when we’re concerned about disease, people from other places and other groups start to seem like potential threats, so we may start to fear and avoid them.

Importantly, the fact that this behavior is potentially an evolved adaptation does not make these behaviors morally right or socially acceptable. For that matter, in our current, global society, these reactions may not even be rational. Avoiding contact with Asian people because of a coronavirus outbreak in a remote Chinese province ignores the fact that race is a pretty poor signal of risk for carrying the disease given that the overwhelming majority of Asian people living in and visiting the U.S. have not had any exposure to the disease. 

It is not uncommon for behaviors that stem from evolved adaptations to be out of sync with our contemporary world. Consider our love of sugary, fatty foods. In situations in which food supplies are scarce and inconsistent, high fat/high sugar foods provide a lot of calories in a small package, and if calories are hard to come by—as they were throughout most of human evolution—seeking out such foods is a good strategy to make sure you have enough calories to survive. But translate that preference into our current world with its abundant Snickers bars and Cool Ranch Doritos, and you have a recipe for obesity and related health consequences.

Nevertheless, understanding the impact of the behavioral immune system on prejudice could help us fight against it. For example, studies by Julie Huang and her colleagues found that making people feel more protected from disease—for example, by reminding them that they have gotten a flu shot or by having them wash their hands—lowered the effects of fears related to disease and increased their feelings of positivity toward people from other groups. So getting a flu shot may inoculate us to prejudice, in addition to making sure we don’t catch and spread the flu!

Both the general anxious reaction to coronavirus, and its impact on racial bias, are cases of our minds trying to keep us healthy and safe, but ultimately leading us to focus on the wrong things. Hopefully, the coronavirus infection will soon run its course. But until then, we should vigilant that natural fear this virus evokes doesn’t get the better of us and lead us to behave in ways that harm more than they help.

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