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New pandemic, same racism fallout: research highlights “behavioural immune” system’s response to disease threats.

October 28, 2020

Toronto – Anti-Chinese sentiments expressed during the COVID-19 pandemic are nothing new when it comes to social responses to contagious diseases. 


Studies during the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” pandemic and the 2014 Ebola outbreak revealed similar xenophobic attitudes in response to a heightened sense of risk. They’re an expression of the “behavioural immune system,” humans use to avoid disease, says a recent review of past related research. And, just like the biological one, that system can swing into overdrive, causing harm through negative social behaviours. 


“The research shows that feelings matter,” says Spike Lee, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management whose work on attitudes around H1N1 is included in the review paper.  


Feelings of threat are heightened the more clear and present a disease becomes in our lives. This can lead to outsized perceptions of risk that don’t always square with reality and can extend to areas unrelated to the initial disease – think toilet paper hoarding in the early weeks of COVID-19. 


In one experiment Prof. Lee ran during H1N1, people were asked to estimate the probability of the average American contracting a serious disease, having a heart attack before age 50 and dying from a crime or serious accident. Their probability estimates rose significantly for each item when an undercover research associate sneezed or coughed loudly nearby. 


Feelings of uncertainty and unfamiliarity that so many experienced in the first months of COVID-19 are also documented contributors to a heightened sense of risk. These can lead to greater distrust and even reduced stock activity. That makes the transparency of information critical to avoiding such negative responses, the paper says. 


Xenophobia is one such response. It’s an expression of our tendency to classify others as either “inside” or “outside,” our own identified group and to channel negative feelings towards those identified as outsiders. 


Research during the 2014 Ebola outbreak found xenophobic attitudes rose with an increased sense of vulnerability to the disease. More racist attitudes against immigrants were also found during H1N1 if people had just read an article about the disease’s health risks and the limited supply of a vaccine. 

The dynamics of the behavioural immune system are especially powerful during COVID-19, says the review, because of its severity and the lack of a vaccine. Until that changes, policymakers need to proceed carefully with how they leverage people’s psychological dynamics. 


“Once you scare people, they can easily turn that feeling of fear into hatred for another group,” says Prof. Lee, who is also a cross-appointed psychology professor at U of T. 


The research review was co-authored by Julie Huang of Stony Brook University and Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. It appears in Frontiers in Psychology.  


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Ken McGuffin 

Manager, Media Relations 

Rotman School of Management 

University of Toronto