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Coronavirus: Shunning 'sad but no surprise'

Conor Dillon | Gabriel Borrud
February 5, 2020

From avoiding Chinese restaurants to banning Chinese travel groups, anecdotes of coronavirus "hypervigilance" — bordering on racism — are mounting. DW asked psychologist Joshua Tybur why and what the science says.

Äthiopien Flughafen Addis Abeba | Sicherheitsmaßnahmen gegen Coronavirus
Image: Getty Images/L. Dray

DW: There’s lot of anecdotal evidence from all around the world that people are shunning anyone or anything Chinese. Is there research that explains why people are reacting this way?

Dr. Joshua Tybur: This is a sad situation, but it shouldn’t be a surprise based on the data we've collected. A paper my PhD student and I published a few years ago looked at people's attitudes and their acceptance of hypothetical immigrants from Liberia during the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and from Syria, when ISIS was a big problem. We found that participants were equally negative toward both men and women potentially immigrating from Liberia, but that they were only negative toward men potentially immigrating from Syria, where violence is a big threat, and where people are maybe concerned about violent terrorism. What this research tells us is that infectious disease threats make individuals worried about all kinds of people from a specific area. Basically, there's not a specific demographic that might be linked to a threat. But any individual from an area with a high load of infectious disease could be viewed as a threat.

One of your studies references something called "pathogen avoidance psychology." Is that what you're referencing here? 

Exactly. As long as there have been homo sapiens, we've been infected by pathogens. We first became aware that pathogens lead to disease only about 200 years ago. But our minds have evolved in contexts where we've had great advantages in being able to, without conscious awareness, detect pathogens and avoid them. 

Passenger wearing a face mask at the Air China check-in at Frankfurt Airport
At the Air China check-in at Frankfurt AirportImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

So, it doesn't take a degree in microbiology to realize that when there's an unflushed toilet in a public restroom, or there's a pile of vomit on the floor, that's something that we don't want to touch. And this pathogen avoidance psychology is the way that our sensory systems — so our eyes when we see an infected wound, our noses when we smell vomit or some other bodily waste, our ears when we hear the noise of vomit — process that information in a way that motivates us to say "get away." And we refer to that motivation as disgust. 

Pathogens can't chase you like lions or tigers or bears. You actually need to touch them for them to be dangerous to you. And this feeling of disgust really motivates us to avoid physical contact.

Could that feeling of disgust be compared to, let's say, the feeling of fear that someone could feel waiting in a supermarket line, seeing someone who looks Chinese? Would you say that's a natural reaction?

Yes, I would say that it's natural. That doesn't mean that it's good or desirable. But the thing with disgust is that it's elicited when we actually perceive the cues. And when we say cues, we mean things like infected wounds, or sneezes or coughs. The tricky thing about a coronavirus right now or any kind of infectious disease epidemic is that oftentimes people are asymptomatic. That means you don't know who might be infectious.

Do I scare you?

And that state of fear that you're talking about might reflect a kind of hypervigilance, of constantly looking for features in your environment that might give you more information about infection, and when you see someone that might be of a specific demographic, that might have an infection, and they might not even know it, instead of feeling disgusted — because there's no coughing or sneezing or anything — you might just feel like getting immediately away from that environment.

What predicts how hysterically people will react to a pathogenic outbreak and to any "immigrant" group that may or may not carry a pathogen?

Well, yes, people who are more negative toward immigrants in general are also going to be more negative toward immigrants from a country with a lot of infectious disease, like the Chinese with the coronavirus right now. 

There is, however, another interesting personality trait that relates specifically to reactions toward immigrants from infectious disease areas. And that is something we call "disgust sensitivity." We measure that by asking people how disgusted they are by things like stepping in dog poop, or seeing mold on old leftovers in the refrigerator, or standing next to someone who has body odor. Those are all subconscious indicators that there might be pathogens around, and some people are more bothered by those things than other people. Now it just happens that the same people who are more disgusted by dog poop and mold, they’re also more against allowing immigrants in from countries with infectious diseases. They're not necessarily against immigrants from countries without infectious diseases, but they're really bothered by people who might be harboring some kind of disease.

China Coronavirus
Dispatch to the danger zone: A ceremony for medical staff entrain for Wuhan, China, the center of the coronavirus outbreakImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Xinhua/D. Lei

How do you respond when people accuse you, or suggest that this kind of research lends itself as a justification for racism? 

Well, I would respond that people have been prejudiced for as long as societies have existed, and people haven't needed academic research as an excuse to be prejudiced. 

What we're trying to do is understand why that's the case. And my goal as a researcher is to better understand those psychological processes to perhaps eventually arrive at ways to intervene and to stop these socially problematic behaviors from arising. 

One interesting thing to point out, and it's something that we can do as scientists, is to highlight the actual base rates for coronavirus. So, for instance, I read an anecdote from the Italian news that a woman on a train was berating someone of Asian descent for having the coronavirus and infecting them all. And the person responded in fluent Italian, with a Roman dialect, that he was born in Rome and had never been to China. And, you know, this illustrates the ridiculousness of these types of reactions, which might seem natural, but which don't have any basis in the actual infection rates and threats that people face right now. 

And I think it's our responsibility, not just as psychologists, as I am, but also infectious disease specialists, to not be overly dramatic about infection risks right now, and also to try to communicate to people that the probability of catching and dying from the coronavirus right now is probably less than it is to cross the road while you're texting on your cell phone.

Joshua Tybur is an associate professor in the department of experimental and applied psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, where he specializes in evolutionary perspectives on threat management. His specific field investigates how people's minds are designed to deal with things like infectious disease threats.

The interview was conducted by Conor Dillon and Gabriel Borrud, co-hosts of DW's weekly science podcast.

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