News Release

COVID-19 keeps away locals from foreigners, but not because of border control

Peer-Reviewed Publication

The Polish Association of Social Psychology

COVID-19 keeps away locals from foreigners

image: The "behavioral immune system" was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and it targets foreigners, concludes a new study. view more 

Credit: Jessica Yap (@jcyapsf) on Unsplash

The more salient a disease threat becomes, the more people prefer to keep away from foreigners. However, this might not be only due to discrimination or travelling restrictions.

Instead, according to a new study by scientists at SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities (Warsaw, Poland), published in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Social Psychological Bulletin, which surveyed Polish people shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020, suggests this behaviour is linked to an evolutionary response, where people become more sensitive to feelings of disgust when they believe their lives are in danger.

In what is also known as ‘behavioral immune system’, in order to avoid pathogens and infection in times of an imminent threat of disease, humans have evolved to pick up various cues, which suggest members of the community might be sick, such as coughing or sneezing, and start avoiding them, led by feelings of disgust.

However, in order to become more effective, given the immense diversity of illnesses and their symptoms, this evolutionary tool has grown to fire up as a result of many additional cues that may make someone stand out within the community, including disfigurements, obesity or accent. Additionally, the behavioral immune system works when it comes to foreigners, since they are seen as potential carriers of novel pathogens.

The present study - which involved a total of 588 participants - provides further evidence that the behavioral immune system was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 and that it targets foreigners. Further, the researchers conclude that the more people perceived the infection as a threat to their lives, the more sensitive to feelings of disgust they became, and, as a result, they channeled them towards foreigners.

As evidence, how likely the participants were to distance themselves from foreigners turned out to have no correlation to how likely in general they were to be repelled by similarly disgusting stimuli in other contexts. To measure proneness to disgust, the researchers asked the participants to rate 21 situations referring to three disgust domains: moral disgust (e.g. students cheating to get good grades), pathogen disgust (e.g. standing close to a person who has body odor) and sexual disgust (e.g. performing oral sex).

Additionally, the present study found correlation between people’s germ aversion and avoidance of foreigners. However, this time, the researchers didn’t register growing dislike for foreign people as an intermediate step. This might be due to germ aversion being rather a matter of action than perception.  

“Among the numerous threats indicated by social psychologists to play an important role in shaping prejudice, xenophobia, and social distancing toward outgroup members, there are those which are related to disease. During pandemics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, when the threat to our lives becomes real, investigating the consequences of disease threats on social cognition and behavior is highly important,”

says Prof. Aleksandra Szymkow, lead author of the study.

“Although we are careful in giving priority to this idea, as social attitudes toward outgroups have been shown to have various origins, our results suggest that in times of elevated disease threat, the behavioral immune system can be an important framework for understanding social distancing tendencies,”

she further emphasises.


Research article:

Szymkow, A., Frankowska, N., & Gałasińska, K. (2021). Social Distancing From Foreign Individuals as a Disease-Avoidance Mechanism: Testing the Assumptions of the Behavioral Immune System Theory During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Social Psychological Bulletin, 16(3), 1-28.

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