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Does the Behavioral Immune System Explain Xenophobia?

In a new study, political scientists are political scientists.

by Michael Byrne
01 May 2017, 2:11pm

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.

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