The past few months have been harrowing, to say the very least. The Covid-19 virus has plunged the world, figuratively speaking, into chaos. According to the CDC, as of today, the virus has been responsible for 1,517,653 total deaths (CDC, 2020). The amount of deaths has made it necessary to wear masks in places that are enclosed where people gather. It is also noticeable that people are divided on this, especially where local governments have made mask-wearing mandatory. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter is the right place where one can see this play out. So the question is, what is going on with government mandates and people acting out what can be described as authoritarian attitudes towards people on the pro-mask side of the argument?
The answer lies in our behavioral immune system and tendencies to act out authoritarian behaviors as a consequence of that. The mask mandates, fines, and other instances of governmental intervention, whether real or perceived infringements on freedom, can be explained by the role that affect and emotion systems play in politics. Political scientists and psychologists have come to the consensus that the emotion of disgust and the differences in sensitivity to disgust influences the spectrum of which disgust influences political attitudes, beliefs, and values (Karinen, & Chapman, 2019; Shook, Oosterhoff, Terrizzi Jr., & Brady, 2017 ). The role that disgust plays, from an evolutionary perspective, is in orderly behavior associated with personality trait conscientiousness (DeYoung, Quilty, & Peterson, 2007) is related to disease avoidance strategy in two ways. First, by keeping physical order, this helps to prevent bacterial growth, pest infestation and makes it easier to notice potentially contaminating rodents and insects. Second, keeping social order by seeing that rules are followed and that people act accordingly, which can prevent the other members of the in-group from catching diseases (Karinen & Chapman, 2019). The second point being responsible for the seemingly authoritarian attitudes of government.
Because other people are a source of contamination and spread contagions, disgust has important implications for social attitudes regarding in-group and outgroup populations. As the primary means of transmitting disease is contact with other individuals, outgroup members seemingly pose a more significant disease threat than in-group members. Evolutionarily, outgroup members may have carried foreign pathogens for which the individual did not have immunity. Prejudice generally encourages individuals to avoid groups to which they have negative attitudes. Thus, disgust sensitivity may promote prejudice toward the outgroup (Shook et al., 2017).
Moral hypervigilance is a concept that applies itself to the rise in videoing those seen as moral offenders, the anti-mask people being videoed, and shamed on social media. According to Jones and Fitness (2008), moral disgust describes the experience of the emotion disgust in response to exposure to moral transgressors and offenses. Moral disgust can be contrasted with more familiar forms of disgust, such as core disgust; the feeling of revulsion at the thought of tasting or touching polluted objects, like feces as an example. If corrupt individuals can indeed elicit disgust, and this issue is contentious, then what might this imply for those who experience disgust quickly and intensely? Evidence supports that the relationship between elevated disgust sensitivity (DS) and what is called moral hypervigilance, a syndrome consisting of behavioral tendencies, attitudes, and cognitive biases aimed at reducing the risk of exposure to transgressors.
One factor that supports the existence of moral disgust is people's eagerness to use language indicative of disgust when describing crimes, criminals, and others seen as a threat to in-group well-being. Offenses can be "revolting," "sickening," or "disgusting"; perpetrators are "pigs," and "rotten bastards," and suspicious behavior "stinks" or is "fishy." In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, to describe the possibility of foul play, a character remarks that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." Some scholars argue that moral corruption cannot arouse the same emotion that is provoked by the smell of feces or the sight of maggots (Jones & Fitness, 2008).
Given that those who cheat, deceive, or callously injure others are considered a menace to in-group members' well-being, it seems reasonable to shun them or move to have them expelled from the in-group. Experiencing disgust toward wrongdoers would powerfully encourage one to engage in that behavior, as the action is motivated by disgust, to distance oneself from the disgust elicitor. High-DS individuals may hold attitudes toward law and order that are punitive and reflect a desire to rid society of morally corrosive elements. For example, they may favor imposing extended periods of imprisonment on criminals and believe that the courts and social services are too protective of the interests of wrongdoers. More generally, they may display right-wing authoritarianism (RWA). RWA refers to a personality style and attitudinal orientation characterized by uncritical submission to authority, conventionalism, and hostility toward those who are seen as challenging the social and moral orders (Jones & Fitness, 2008). So disgust, as an emotion, motivates the withdrawal from people and objects that elicit disgust, both physical and moral. As far as authoritarian attitudes, Jones and Fitness (2008) also found that those with high DS did indeed have RWA attitudes. As predicted, DS was positively associated with RWA, based on a statistical analysis of answers on a 9 item questionnaire. The results were β = 0.467, f (1, 68) = 19.01, p <.001.
Systems of governance differ widely, and one crucial dimension on which they vary is authoritarianism. In contrast to liberal democratic forms of governance (characterized by widespread participation in the political process, and by the protection of individual civil rights and ideological freedoms), authoritarian governance is defined by highly concentrated power structures that repress dissent and emphasize submission to authority, social conformity, and hostility towards outgroups (Murray, Schaller, & Suedfeld, 2013).
Why does governance in some states and societies appear more authoritarian than in others? Economic variables, including the overall availability of economic resources and how those resources are distributed, provide partial answers to the question. Ecological variables may play a role as well. Recently, it has been suggested that societal variability in authoritarian governance may result, in part, from the variability of the prevalence of disease-causing parasites. (In this context, "parasite" is used to describe broadly to any pathogenic organisms, including bacteria and viruses). Although results from several initial studies support this "parasite stress" hypothesis of authoritarian governance, alternative explanations for those results remain unaddressed (Murray Schaller & Suedfeld, 2013).
Why might there be a causal link between the prevalence of infectious diseases in the local ecology and authoritarian attitudes? The hypothesis follows from an analysis of several defining characteristics of authoritarian political systems (such as the institutionalized emphasis on social conformity and intolerance of dissent) that may have implications for the spread of infectious disease. Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adhering to shared behavioral practices that reduce infection risk. Individuals who openly dissent from or fail to conform to these behavioral actions pose a threat to the health of self and others. Thus, while there can be societal costs associated with any collective tendency toward obedience and conformity (e.g., inhibition of technological innovation), there can be disease-specific benefits too [presuming that a more significant proportion of these behavioral actions serve to mitigate, rather than propagate, the spread of disease (wearing a mask everywhere)]. These benefits would have been higher (and more likely to outweigh the costs) under circumstances in which disease-causing parasites placed more significant stress on human welfare, circumstances in which those parasites were especially virulent and prevalent (Murray Schaller & Suedfeld, 2013).
At a psychological level of analysis, empirical evidence reveals that the subjective perception of infection risk causes individuals to be more conformist, to prefer conformity and obedience in others, to respond more negatively toward others who fail to conform which is precisely what Jones and Fitness (2008) laid out in their study on disgust sensitivity and authoritarian attitudes. At a societal level of analysis, according to Murray, Schaller, & Suedfeld (2013), empirical evidence shows that in countries and cultures with a historically higher prevalence of infectious diseases, the people are less individualistic, they exhibit lower levels of dispositional openness to new things, are more likely to conform to the majority opinion, and more strongly endorse "binding" moral values that emphasize group loyalty, obedience, and respect for authority. In-group loyalty can explain why anyone who questions the utility of masks gets shamed online, seen as inhuman (comparisons to rats and other diseased parasites), and even physically assaulted. The disgust sensitivity of individuals within an ideological in-group tends to develop a prejudice of the repulsive outgroup. It, therefore, aids in the avoidance of outgroups to maintain the health of self and others within the in-group.
The prevalence of infectious disease does influence authoritarian attitudes within individuals, social in-groups, and governments themselves. The behaviors being seen in viral videos on social media platforms are expressions of the behavioral immune system run amok. Care needs to be taken when it comes to how we interact with one another in an already stressful time do to the current sociocultural upheaval in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the increasing numbers of Covid-19 due to the protests, reopening of businesses, and the slow recovery from the economic shutdown and mandatory lockdowns in many cities in the country.
DeYoung, C. G., Quilty, L. C., & Peterson, J. B. (2007). Between facets and domains: 10 aspects of the big five. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(5), 880-896. doi:10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.520.
Jones, A., & Fitness, J. (2008). Moral hypervigilance: The influence of disgust sensitivity in the moral domain. Emotion, 8(5), 613-627. doi:10.1037/a0013435.
Karinen, A. K., & Chapman, H. A. (2019). Cognitive and personality correlates of trait disgust and their relationship to condemnation of nonpurity moral transgressions. Emotion, 19(5), 889-902. doi:10.1037/emo0000489.
Murray, D. R., Schaller, M., & Suedfeld, P. (2013). Pathogens and politics: Further evidence that parasite prevalence predicts authoritarianism. PLoS One, 8(5) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062275.
Shook, N. J., Oosterhoff, B., Terrizzi, J. A., Jr., & Brady, K. M. (2017). "Dirty politics": The role of disgust sensitivity in voting. Translational Issues in Psychological Science, 3(3), 284-297. doi:10.1037/tps0000111.