As expected and common, the phenomenon posed by the threat of disease in recent months is still astonishing and intriguing, at least for the youngest who have not yet undergone major and sudden changes.
The crisis staggered by this virus is not only occupying much of our thinking, but it seems to be more like clustered in our minds, as it happens these days. For months, almost all the media has had, on a daily basis, stories about the new Coronavirus pandemic. Radio and television shows have uninterrupted coverage of the latest death figures, and depending on who you follow, social media platforms are full of scary statistics, practical advice, or dark humor.
This constant bombardment of information can lead to increased anxiety, with immediate effects on our mental health. But the constant feeling of threat can have also other more treacherous effects on our psychology. Due to some responses to diseases that evolved over centuries, the fear of contagion leads us to be more conformist and primitive, and less receptive to eccentricity.
Our more conservative moral judgments and social attitudes become stricter when we consider issues like immigration or sexual freedom and equality.
Recent reports of increased xenophobia and racism may be the first sign of this, but if the predictions of scientific research are correct, they may reflect much deeper social and psychological changes.
Like much of human psychology, these responses to disease must be understood in the context of prehistory. Before the birth of modern medicine, infectious diseases were very likely one of the greatest threats to our survival. The immune system has some amazing mechanisms to hunt down and kill these pathogenic invaders.
Unfortunately, these reactions leave us feeling sleepy and lacking energy, which means that our sick ancestors would not have been able to perform essential activities, such as hunting, gathering, or raising children.
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Being sick is also physiologically expensive. Increasing body temperature during fever, for example, is essential for an effective immune response, but this results in a 13% increase in the body’s energy consumption. And when food was scarce, that would have been a serious burden.
Therefore, anything that reduces the risk of infection in the first place should have offered a clear survival advantage.
“The fear of contagion makes us more conformist and less receptive to eccentricity. Our moral judgments become stricter and sexual attitudes more conservative,” says David Robson, scientific writer specialized in the functioning of the brain, body and human behavior.
For this reason, we developed a set of unconscious psychological responses, to act as a first line of defense with the aim of reducing our contact with potential pathogens.
The response of the sense of taste is one of the most obvious components of the behavioral immune system. When we reject things that smell bad or foods that we think are not clean, we instinctively try to avoid possible contagion. The mere suggestion that we have already eaten something rotten can lead us to vomit, expelling the food before the infection has had a chance to lodge. Scientific research also suggests that we tend to remember the material that triggers disgust more strongly, allowing us to remember (and avoid) situations that could put us at risk for disease later on.
Since humans are a social species that evolved to live in large groups, the behavioral immune system also modified interactions with people to minimize the spread of disease, leading to a kind of instinctive social distancing.
These responses can be quite harsh, as our ancestors would not have understood the specific causes of each disease or how they were transmitted. “The behavioral immune system works with a logic of ‘prevention is better than cure’,” told BBC Lene Aarøe from Aarhus University in Denmark. This means that the responses are often misplaced and can be triggered by irrelevant information, altering our moral decision-making and political opinions on issues that have nothing to do with the current threat.
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Various experiments have shown that we become more conformist and respectful of the conventions when we feel the threat of disease. Apparently, any sign of free thought, even of invention and innovation, is valued less when there is a risk of contagion.
In questionnaires, people who participated in various surveys are also more likely to agree with statements such as “breaking social norms can have harmful and unintended consequences.”
“Some people have a particularly sensitive behavioral immune system that makes them over-react to things they interpret as a possible risk of infection,” also explains Aarøe.
There isn’t yet any hard data on the ways the Coronavirus outbreak is changing our minds, but the immune system’s theory of behavior would certainly suggest that it is likely for it to do so. Yoel Inbar from the University of Toronto argues that it would be a relatively moderate change in the general opinion of the population, rather than a major shake-up in social attitudes. The specialist found evidence of social change during the 2014 Ebola pandemic, which was very present in international news.
Whether we are expressing a conformist opinion, judging the behavior of another, or trying to understand the value of different containment policies, we might ask ourselves whether our thoughts are really the result of rational reasoning, or whether they may have been haped by an ancient response to disease that evolved over time before the discovery of germ theory.
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