Is COVID-19 Inflaming Prejudice?

Our "behavioral immune systems" can make dangerous mistakes.

Posted Jun 11, 2020

At this time in history, avoiding sick people is essential. Reducing close contact with others, wearing masks, and quarantining will prevent many needless deaths. But avoiding people who are potential disease vectors can also come at a cost: healthy forms of social distancing might tend to give way to problematic forms of social marginalization.

Scientists have previously found evidence that humans possess “behavioral immune systems,” which can provide a first line of defense for our biological immune systems. Because we’re predisposed to feel aversive emotions like disgust when we’re about to come into contact with disease-ridden substances, we can prevent our bodies from needing to mount consistent immune responses against myriad diseases by avoiding harmful bacteria and viruses in the first place. Being equipped with tendencies to avoid likely sources of pathogens is a highly adaptive component of human psychology.

The behavioral immune system has some unsavory qualities, however. Because pathogens and parasites are too small for our senses to detect directly, we have to rely on indirect cues for their existence. And because it’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to disease, our behavioral immune systems seem designed to respond on a hair-trigger – meaning that we often make mistakes about what to avoid. For example, we may be predisposed to avoid people who are homeless and people who have facial disfigurements, even if they are actually healthy and harmless.

Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0
Source: Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0

A growing body of research has shown that our behavioral immune systems increase our tendencies to derogate people who look different from us – for example, people of other races or ethnicities. And new research from my lab, recently published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, has contributed evidence that children and adults have biases against sick and physically dirty people that go beyond mere avoidance tendencies.

In our studies, children and adults from the United States and India were less likely to trust information that was provided by people who were sick or unclean. Furthermore, our participants judged these sick or unclean people to be meaner, greedier, lazier, less smart, less brave, and less desirable to befriend. These biases against physically dirty and ill people emerged by the age of 5. 

These scientific findings dovetail with historical examples of rhetoric combining supposed physical contamination and moral shortcomings. From Nazi propaganda stating that Jews are a “people of contagion” to modern slurs about immigrants coming from “sh*thole countries,” claims about the dirty or disgusting nature of certain individuals or groups have served as a powerful mechanism for vilification, especially during genocides.

All of this evidence suggests that heightened anxiety about the novel coronavirus may be contributing to heightened manifestations of bias. Especially given that people of color have been disproportionately struck by COVID-19, it seems possible that prejudice and discrimination have been compounded during recent weeks due in part to a chronic upregulation of behavioral immune systems. Clearly, there are many factors that have contributed to the unspeakably tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous others. Racial prejudices and police brutality have long predated the appearance of COVID-19, of course, but it’s possible that the coronavirus has fueled them further.

It’s even more plausible that the behavioral immune system is partially responsible for other recent manifestations of xenophobia and elevated intergroup biases. Asian Americans have been attacked and shamed for the so-called “Chinese virus.” National borders have become increasingly impermeable, and many Latin Americans have been denied entry to the United States despite desperately needing asylum. The elderly, who are often subject to ageism, may be treated with increased disregard.

We should certainly continue to avoid filth and germs. We should do our best to stay away from sick people while they remain contagious. But we should also ensure that we are doing so without allowing insidious and unwarranted social biases to taint our interactions with other people –particularly marginalized members of society. Now is the time for all of us to extend our compassion more than we ever have before, not to withhold it.