I would like to start this series of four blogs with a personal anecdote. Those who know me well know that for me, there’s nothing better than a good old handshake to start a friendly or professional meeting. That said, I recently watched a series in which the main character walked through a crowd and shook the hand of anyone who was willing. I was therefore surprised to feel a strong sense of aversion, telling myself “It’s absolutely crazy to touch so many people.” I had never had this reflex before and yet today, with the COVID-19 crisis, I am now overtaken by an instinctive disgust towards this type of behaviour.
Nevertheless, like many of us, I also have an increasingly growing desire to see my family, my friends and my co-workers. On top of that, I notice that Quebecers appear to be showing more and more solidarity as #it’s going to be okay has become the most striking emblem in this singular period. Following these observations, I had trouble explaining how we could be disgusted by others and feel the desire to get closer at the same time. That is why I wanted to try and anticipate and understand the impact of COVID-19 on our relationships.
Behavioural immune system (BIM)
I therefore initiated an extensive study to try to understand the phenomenon. I came across some scientific research concerning the behavioural immune system (BIM). This system brings together all the mechanisms used to detect the presence of pathogens and facilitate avoiding them before they come into contact with the body and put the immune system into action (Schaller & al., 2011). This complex system involves a mixture of anxiety, perception of vulnerability to diseases and sensitivity to disgust (Ackerman & al., 2018).
Essentially, it is the system which ensures that when you are walking down the street and you see fecal matter, you feel repulsed, which inevitably leads you to want to avoid it. And if you were unfortunate enough to step in it, it is this same reaction that triggers the urgency you feel to wipe or wash your shoes to get rid of it.
Avoidance in relationships
We understand quite well the importance of avoiding contact with fecal matter, knowing that it can transmit diseases. But in many cases, other humans can also transmit diseases to us, as is the case with COVID-19. Is the BIM involved in this case as well? It appears that it is.
Several studies have shown that by activating the BIM by showing us a short video of the top 10 most disgusting things or a presentation on the transmission of diseases, people become less extroverted, less open to new experiences (Mortensen & al., 2010) and trust others less (Kugler & al., 2019). They are also less interested in romance and less attracted by beautiful people. (Sawada & al., 2018). Finally, they would be less inclined to come into contact with immigrants and would have stronger xenophobic attitudes (Aarøe & al., 2017). These results are linked to the fact that a highly infectious disease like COVID-19 leads to a greater sense of vulnerability to the disease and a greater awareness to the disgust that provokes avoiding others.
Despite these demonstrations, how do we explain the desire to get together with our own people and this sudden rise in solidarity? It appears that it is a selective reaction related to the fact that it is “us” against “them”. But doesn’t this distinction between us and them risk leading to xenophobia? And if so, what do we do about it?
All of these questions will be discussed in our upcoming blogs. To be continued…
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Aarøe, L., Petersen, M. B., & Arceneaux, K. (2017). The behavioral immune system shapes political intuitions: Why and how individual differences in disgust sensitivity underlie opposition to immigration. American Political Science Review, 111(2), 277-294.
Ackerman, J. M., Hill, S. E., & Murray, D. R. (2018). The behavioral immune system: Current concerns and future directions. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 12(2), e12371.
Kugler, T., Ye, B., Motro, D., & Noussair, C. N. (2019). On trust and disgust: Evidence from face reading and virtual reality. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550619856302
Mortensen, C. R., Becker, D. V., Ackerman, J. M., Neuberg, S. L., & Kenrick, D. T. (2010). Infection breeds reticence: The effects of disease salience on self-perceptions of personality and behavioral avoidance tendencies. Psychological Science, 21(3), 440-447.
Sawada, N., Auger, E., & Lydon, J. E. (2018). Activation of the behavioral immune system: Putting the brakes on affiliation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(2), 224-237.
Schaller, M., & Park, J. H. (2011). The behavioral immune system (and why it matters). Current directions in psychological science, 20(2), 99-103.
[…] like many of us, I also have an increasingly growing desire to see my family, my friends and my co-workers. On top of that, I notice that Quebecers appear to be showing more and more solidarity as #it’s going to be okay has become the most striking emblem in this singular period.