As a lifelong student of the deadly scourge known as “conservatism,” I read with great interest a recent piece by Ezra Klein in Vox entitled Standing near hand sanitizer makes Americans more conservative. So what will Ebola do?. Klein reports on a growing mass of evidence that human social and political cultures are emergent properties of our responses to infectious disease threats—or “pathogen stress,” as the fancy lib’rul eeleet perfessers like to call it. The gist of the theory is this: through all of human history, infectious diseases have been the single greatest threat to human populations—killing more people than wars, natural disasters and noninfectious diseases combined—such that humans (like other animals) have evolved behavioral responses to avoid them. Just as our biological immune system is triggered by the presence of diseases, so too is our “behavioral immune system” activated by (perceived) disease threats in our environment. Klein gives the examples of our fear and aversion upon encountering a rat, and feeling disgusted when you get a whiff of rotten meat. It works at a surprisingly granular level, too: humans react with disgust to yellowish liquids that resemble pus, yet we remain unfazed by blueish substances of the same texture.
It turns out that the reaction of disgust in particular has profound moral and political implications, not just for individuals but for culture writ large. There is a well-demonstrated link between moral notions of “purity” and social conservatism, and conservatives are more easily disgusted than liberals. Where this gets very, very interesting is the finding that even subtle reminders of cleanliness (or its opposite, impurity) can trigger more conservative attitudes—in anyone. In a clever set of experiments, Cornell University psychologists Erik Helzer and David Pizarro approached every ninth college student entering a campus hallway and asked them to take a quick survey about their demographics and political beliefs. Half the students were were asked to “step over to the hand-sanitizer dispenser to complete the questionnaire,” and the other half were asked to “step over to the wall to complete the questionnaire” where the hand sanitizer had been removed. The researchers reported:
Participants who reported their political attitudes in the presence of the hand-sanitizer dispenser reported a less liberal political orientation than did participants in the control condition. Despite the noisy nature of the public hallway in which we collected the data, it appears as if a simple reminder of physical purity was able to shift participants’ responses toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.
The conservative effect held for fiscal, social and moral positions. Helzer and Pizarro then ran a second experiment in the lab, where half the participants were offered a hand sanitizer wipe before using the lab computers to answer a questionnaire about their moral values. Again, the researchers found that those exposed to the cleanliness cue reported significantly more conservative political attitudes than subjects who were not.
In other words we are pretty much meat robots, subconsciously programmed by cues in our environments. Even our most cherished and fiercely held moral and political beliefs can be profoundly affected by the circumstances in which we find ourselves. It is worth remembering that we are talking about tendencies here; these are modern manifestations of ancient survival mechanisms in a much more complex world. It’s probably a safe bet that it would require a whole lot more hand sanitizer to get some of us to vote for some berserker theocrat than it would our fellow citizens who are already well on their way to Hitlerville. Complicating matters further, future political orientation can be predicted by personality traits evident in children as young as 3, which throws a monkey wrench into any simplistic nature-vs.-nurture calculus. And just anecdotally, virtually everyone probably knows siblings reared in the same environment with diametrically opposed political views.
Still, as research in the field has been expanding, the political ramifications of the behavioral immune system are turning up everywhere. Mark Schaller & Co. found that subjects primed to think about disease were much more prejudiced and fearful toward immigrants; in light of this, it is hardly surprising to discover that wherever there is a higher risk of infectious disease, societies tend to be more xenophobic. And it gets weirder—and worse:
As Ethan Watters writes in an overview of the evidence, researchers have found “severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior.”
Ezra Klein finds the implications of a behavioral immune system unnerving, and it troubling to the degree that it has become maladaptive—witness the recent child refugee pants-wetting, and the current Ebola lunacy. It could also be exploited for nefarious purposes, which raises an interesting question: if we know about it, do political operatives? Bankers? Health insurance executives? Big Oil? CIA? NYPD?
Yet as terrifying as that prospect is, there are positive implications as well. Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer found that “reframing proenvironmental rhetoric in terms of purity, a moral value resonating primarily among conservatives, largely eliminated the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes.” They had set out to uncover the whys and wherefores of extreme political polarization between liberals and conservatives on climate change and environmental degradation, and found that messages tying these issues to a conservative moral framework—purity—either significantly reduced the liberal/conservative gap or eliminated it entirely. And if we examine the study design, it may offer up even more support for the theory. Subjects were shown two sets of pictures related to global warming and the environment, each reinforcing a different moral frame. In the liberal-associated “harm/care” moral framework, subjects were shown “a destroyed forest littered with tree stumps, a barren coral reef and cracked land suffering from drought.” If it seems like conservatives don’t care about any of that, that’s because they don’t: for reasons that naturally escape this lefty, they simply do not see environmental devastation or the looming climate calamity in moral terms. But:
In the second [conservative-associated] purity/sanctity framework (whose violation tends to trigger disgust), they were shown a cloud of pollution looming over a city, a person drinking contaminated water, and a forest covered in garbage. In the later case, there was virtually no liberal/conservative gap so far as general environmental attitudes were concerned, and the gap was significantly reduced on the issue of global warming.
Pathogen stress, anyone?
The authors note the major obstacle: the predominance of the harm/care moral paradigm in our environmental discourse. But Feinberg also suggests the solution: “if you’re pro-environmental, there are ways to cater to the morality of conservatives that will likely to get them to be more pro-environmental in their attitudes.”
Two of the earliest pioneers in the field, Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher, are still going strong. They’re the researchers who published the major paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in 2012, compiling all the evidence that “severe pathogen stress leads to high levels of civil and ethnic warfare, increased rates of homicide and child maltreatment, patriarchal family structures, and social restrictions regarding women’s sexual behavior.” (No, seriously, WHAT.) They went further, noting that societies in which pathogen-avoidant behaviors flourish are likely to coalesce into repressive and autocratic government systems. Ethan Watters, writing in the Pacific Standard, noted:
Even the most obvious counterexamples that spring to mind can, on closer inspection, seem to offer oblique and even surprisingly overt support for some version of the pathogen stress theory. It’s rather conspicuous that Nazi Germany—probably the most famous modern example of an ethnocentric, bellicose, authoritarian regime—arose in a northern clime, and not in some tropical latitude. But consider that the Nazi party began its rise to power in the aftermath of a Spanish flu pandemic that had killed over two million people across Europe—over half a million in Germany alone. And remember that much of Hitler’s poisonous rhetoric specifically suggested that Jews were disease carriers. Again and again, his rants portrayed Germany as an organism fighting disease—caused, among other things, by “Jewish bacteria.” Did Hitler manage to manipulate an unknown psychological mechanism that had been triggered by the threat of disease in the German population?
Fortunately, the opposite dynamic also appears to work: “If promoting democracy and other liberal values is on your agenda, health care and disease abatement should be your main concern,” Thornhill has said. “If you increase health then people will become more liberal and happier.” In much the same way that our biological immune systems can be tricked into positive action by vaccines, perhaps the behavioral immune system can be recruited to virtually eradicate conservative pestilence (<—see what I did there? Hahaha.). It will be no easy task—but it might turn out to be easier than we think.
We can start here: