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Does the Behavioral Immune System Explain Xenophobia?

In a new study, political scientists are political scientists.
Foto: Maarten Delobel

Being afraid of immigrants is only natural, according to new research published in the American Political Science Review. It's just programming, a result of immune system hypersensitivity found in some people but less so in others. It's about germs, not people—an ultimately rational if exaggerated response to the threat of foreign pathogens. The name for it is "disgust sensitivity."

"Because different threats often require unique responses, these mechanisms use different emotional states—anxiety, disgust, jealousy, etc.—to motivate different behaviors," the study authors explain. "In modern democratic societies, a key function of government is to enact policies that provide security and safety from external threats. Thus, there is reason to expect that the deep-seated evolved mechanisms that helped our ancestors defend against threats also influence current-day policy preferences."


The study emphasizes that this stuff happens below the level of conscious awareness. Being afraid of—er, "sensitive" to—immigrants isn't a decision so much as it is a reflex acting at the behest of the behavioral immune system. Note that this isn't really a medical term so much as it is a recently-coined and rather vague psychological term suggesting innate repulsion to unfamiliar things analogous to the actual immune system's reactions to foreign material.

"The behavioral immune system functions according to a 'better safe than sorry' approach," study co-author Michael Bang Petersen offers in a statement.

Petersen and his team did some experiments attempting to correlate behavioral immune sensitivity to anti-immigration attitudes. Basically, subjects were shown images of things related to infection and disease while researchers monitored their perspiration levels. The more sweat, the higher the behavioral immune system sensitivity. These findings were then compared to participant views on immigration. Yep, higher sensitivities aligned with more anti-immigrant attitudes.

The researchers note that the effect was generally more pronounced in liberals, who in many cases were more likely to abandon traditional ideological positions (being pro-immigration) in the presence of higher levels of disgust sensitivity. Conservatives, on the other hand, were mostly anti-immigration anyhow, so it's hard to say what effect such sensitivity may or may not have

"We note that the evolved features of the behavioral immune system fundamentally change the politics of ethnic inclusivity and frustrate the integrationist route to tolerance as multiculturalism increases in the Western world," Petersen and co. write.

Of course, IRL immigrants have no correlation to infection or danger, generally. The paper doesn't have too much to offer in the way of solutions to this oversensitivity—just that it exists and it's probably not helping anything.