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 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. Still, as research in the field has been expanding, the 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. Randy Thornhill and Corey Fincher have found not only that societies in which pathogen-avoidant behaviors flourish are likely to coalesce into repressive and autocratic government systems, but that pathogen stress is positively correlated with "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." [Emphasis added.]
That's right: patriarchy flourishes with the perceived threat of contagious diseases.
Naturally, this really got my beanie a-spinning. I wondered whether, in much the same way that the biological immune system can be tricked into positive action by vaccines, perhaps the behavioral immune system can be recruited to virtually eradicate the conservative pestilence infecting our nation (<—see what I did there? Hahaha.). And then it came to me in a flash: clearly what is needed here is a massive operation to get all of the hand sanitizer out of the halls of Congress and state houses across the country! After that, we can go after the hand sanitizer in the homes and offices of MRAs, Baptist clergy and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Who's with me?
[A version of this post appeared at perry street palace.]