Disgust, Prejudice, and Stereotypes: Pathogen Protection Gone Awry
I think it’s time to add the behavioral immune system to the long list of subconscious influences on our choices.
Can our immune system lead us astray?
Every day, our bodies fight off disease. But it’s costly to launch a full-out immune response, and over time, we’ve also evolved mechanisms for avoiding dangerous substances to begin with. The behavioral immune system (a term coined by Mark Schaller) is one such mechanism, a psychological armory against environmental pathogens – but it may affect us more deeply than we are aware.
What is the behavioral immune system?
In this system, psychological mechanisms detect environmental cues that might indicate the presence of infectious pathogens in our immediate vicinity. They then trigger emotional and cognitive responses, such as disgust and avoidance, that will help us alter our behavior to avoid these elements that have been labeled potentially harmful. Sounds smart, right? Not only can we physically fight off disease, but our brain helps us avoid it behaviorally in the first place. But there’s a catch.
When the system goes wrong: overly-general aversion could contribute to stereotypes and prejudice
The behavioral immune system can only differentiate very general, superficial environmental cues; it doesn’t have the specificity that our actual immune system is able to display once pathogens enter our actual bodies. As a result, it can end up reacting to things that don’t actually pose any threat – and these things include people. In short, the behavioral immune system might alter our perception of the world and act as a subtle (or at times, not so subtle) influence on the decisions we make, not always in a good way.
Some recent findings are especially provoking.
Avoiding the disabled, the obese, and the elderly
Studies have shown that the perceived threat of infection predicts strongly prejudiced behavior toward people who have physical disabilities, people who are obese, and people who are elderly. Why? People who have superficial characteristics that resemble the things our immune system associates with disease may provoke an unconscious aversive response in us – even if we are actually at no risk of infection from them.
Avoiding the foreign: xenophobia and ethnocentrism
Moreover, the behavioral immune system has been linked to both xenophobia and ethnocentrism. Several studies have shown that when individuals feel they are at heightened risk of infection, they prefer to be around familiar people, and tend to avoid those that are foreign. And in a political twist, they even change their attitudes toward immigration, showing a marked preference for more similar others and less willingness to accept immigrants who are “foreign.”
Moreover, women in their first trimester of pregnancy—a time when the actual immune system is suppressed and consequently, the behavioral immune system carries more of a burden—show higher xenophobic and ethnocentric attitudes. This suggests that we should be especially wary of such influences both when we are actually at greater risk of infection (as with pregnancy) and when we think we might be more vulnerable (as with times of extended media coverage of infections).
So what now?
I think it’s time to add the behavioral immune system to the long list of subconscious influences on our choices. We can’t help what it does (and we may have many occasions to thank it, when it does work as planned and helps us from getting infected with something unsavory) but by being aware of it, we can resist it when it’s leading us astray. Next time you just “have a gut feeling” that something is off-putting, ask yourself where it’s coming from. And maybe, with time, it will disappear in those contexts where it should never have appeared to begin with.
Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned mindfulness leader, teaches meditation at Big Think Edge.
- Try meditation for the first time with this guided lesson or, if you already practice, enjoy being guided by a world-renowned meditation expert.
- Sharon Salzberg teaches mindfulness meditation for Big Think Edge.
- Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.
- Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
- The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
- European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Research has shown that men today have less testosterone than they used to. What's happening?
- Several studies have confirmed that testosterone counts in men are lower than what they used to be just a few decades ago.
- While most men still have perfectly healthy testosterone levels, its reduction puts men at risk for many negative health outcomes.
- The cause of this drop in testosterone isn't entirely clear, but evidence suggests that it is a multifaceted result of modern, industrialized life.
Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?
- Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
- The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
- If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
SMARTER FASTER trademarks owned by The Big Think, Inc. All rights reserved.