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Study Finds Link Between Parasites and Authoritarianism

A study suggests that countries with a high prevalence of parasites are likely to have authoritarian governments.

 

Photo: CDC image of an Ebola virus virion


The psychological threat of parasites could be causing people to give rise to authoritarian governments, according to a growing body of radical and controversial research.

It might sound like science fiction, but it’s not that far fetched once you become familiar with parasite-stress theory.

Parasite-stress theory argues that the parasites and diseases encountered by humans over time have shaped our behavioral immune system, which is a suite of psychological mechanisms that allows us to detect and avoid pathogenic organisms. According to the theory, people who live in areas infested with parasites are more likely to think and behave in ways that minimize their risk of infection, including being less open to strangers and less extraverted.


For the interactive map, click here. Source: Economist Intelligence Unit.

Explanations for the causes of authoritarian governments often include exploitable natural resources, economic inequality, lack of culture, or the ramifications of colonial withdrawal. But the more scientists learn about how parasite prevalence affects psychology, the more these explanations seem incomplete.

In 2013, researchers Damian R. Murray, Mark Schaller and Peter Suedfeld conducted a study based on parasite-stress theory that examined the relationship between parasite prevalence and authoritarianism in countries. The authors explained their reasoning:

“Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk. Individuals who openly dissented from, or simply failed to conform to, these behavioral traditions therefore posed a health threat to self and others.”

(Photo: Getty Images)

The authors said that authoritarian tendencies in individuals serve a self-protective function, and these tendencies can temporarily increase when threats become psychologically salient. They noted that individuals who perceive the threat of infectious disease tend to:

  • Become more conformist
  • Prefer conformity and obedience in others
  • Respond negatively to people who fail to conform
  • Endorse conservative socio-political conservative views 
  • (Photo: John Moore)

    The results of the study showed strong correlations between parasite prevalence and authoritarianism – both at the state and individual level.

    However, the key question was whether individuals with authoritarian traits brought on by parasite prevalence were, in some way, causing their governments to become authoritarian. So the researchers ran four mediation analyses using a bootstrapping procedure to find out. All four tests indicated that individuals were giving rise to and sustaining authoritarian governments.

    These results are consistent with the logical implications of the parasite stress hypothesis, and are inconsistent with an alternative explanation suggesting that the correlation between disease prevalence and authoritarianism is based solely on colonial establishment of state-level institutions,” referring to the possibility that the statistical relationship might be explained by the fact that colonial powers tended to set up long-lasting political institutions in low-parasite areas.

    The results beg the question: Could authoritarian governments be eliminated over time by eliminating infectious diseases?

    Some have questioned the study, but scientists continue to conduct research based on parasite-stress theory. Their studies have demonstrated statistical relationships between the prevalence of parasites and:

  • Conservative political ideology
  • Traditionalism and collectivism
  • Less openness and more conscientiousness in individuals
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    Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

    The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

    An odd find

    Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

    Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

    "Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

    Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

    The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

    Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

    "We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

    Why understanding memory matters

    person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

    Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

    "Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

    If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

    Party chat

    Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

    Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

    Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

    spinning 3D model of a brain

    Temporal lobes

    Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

    At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

    Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

    In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

    Seek, find

    Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

    He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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