Evolutionary psychologists suspect that prejudice is rooted in survival: Our distant ancestors had to avoid outsiders who might have carried disease. Research still shows that when people feel vulnerable to illness, they exhibit more bias toward stigmatized groups. But a new study in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science suggests there might be a modern way to break that link.It is a tall order to leap from curing mysophobia, the fear of germs, to curing xenophobia, the fear of foreigners.
“We thought if we could alleviate concerns about disease, we could also alleviate the prejudice that arises from them,” says Julie Y. Huang of the University of Toronto, about a study she conducted with Alexandra Sedlovskaya of Harvard University; Joshua M. Ackerman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and Yale University’s John A. Bargh. The group found that the sense of security derived through measures such as vaccination and hand washing can reduce bias against “out” groups, from immigrants to the obese.
The study—which is unique in uniting evolutionary psychology, social cognitive psychology, and public health—holds promise for reducing physical and social maladies at once. Write the authors, a public health intervention like vaccination or hand washing could be a “modern treatment for [an] ancient affliction.”Perhaps this is a first step toward a cure of homophobia as well? One can always hope.