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Can a Virus Turn Us Against Each Other?

Can a Virus Turn Us Against Each Other?

Since emerging in the city of Wuhan in China last December, the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory illness COVID-19 has reached nearly every continent and spread to every U.S. state, with new cases emerging every day.

With the spread of the virus from China to the rest of the world, reports of anti-Asian harassment and attacks have been on the rise globally. Spikes in hostility toward certain ethnic and racial groups during a pandemic are not new, and they likely reflect xenophobia—the fear or dislike of people considered foreigners or outsiders. Xenophobic responses can include prejudice (negative feelings and attitudes toward a particular group) and discrimination (unfair treatment of others based on their group membership). So what fuels xenophobia, and what can we do about it?

What contributes to xenophobia?

There are many factors that can cause xenophobia, and they often cluster together. Xenophobic reactions during a pandemic can be driven by fear of getting sick, racist beliefs, or both. If people already had negative beliefs about certain groups prior to a pandemic, they may be more likely to perceive members of those groups as disease carriers and health threats. Yet xenophobia can also arise in people who don’t have negative beliefs about a particular racial or ethnic group.

Ingroup favoritism: hardwired to favor "us" over "them"

It’s likely that group living was necessary for our ancestors to survive. This suggests that humans have evolved to highly value the groups they belong to and behave in ways that benefit their own group over others. This tendency is called ingroup bias, and research shows that it doesn’t take much to activate it: most people sort into groups quickly, even based on arbitrary criteria, and show preferential treatment toward their own group.

Two groups of kids compete in the Exploratorium's exhibit game Red vs. Blue
The Exploratorium exhibit Red vs. Blue explores ingroup favoritism. Pick a team, red or blue, and see which one can attain a higher score by pushing their buttons the most times. You can easily join either team at any time and benefit the other group—but will you? Or will you stick with "your" group?

It’s easy to slip into an “us vs. them” mindset (it can even be fun, in a competitive game!), but that tendency doesn’t typically lead us to fear or dislike members of the outgroup as long as we feel safe and our basic needs are met. However, when we’re confronted with threats to our survival, such as economic hardship or a disease outbreak, anyone we consider an outsider can be perceived to pose a risk to our livelihood or health, and ingroup bias can spur xenophobic responses.

The behavioral immune system: fear of pathogens can foster fear of people

You’re probably familiar with the physical immune system that consists of organs, tissues, and cells and protects the body from pathogens such as viruses and bacteria. However, social scientists suggest that we also have a behavioral immune system that helps reduce infection risk by modifying our psychological responses. 

One such response involves avoiding others who might infect us. But how do we know who to avoid? Sometimes it’s obvious who’s sick, but more often, we can’t be sure. For our ancestors, contact with outsiders increased exposure to diseases to which they may have not yet developed immunity, and it would have benefited them to stay away from those they were not familiar with. In this view, xenophobia may be an evolved adaptive response that helped our ancestors survive and gets activated even today when we worry about contagious diseases. Support for this view comes from experiments showing that xenophobic responses increase when people feel vulnerable to infectious disease relative to health risks that are unrelated to disease, such as accidents. 

Heuristics and cognitive bias: misjudging risk and people

Xenophobia can also be the result of trying to make sense of the world. When we don’t have much time or bandwidth, we use heuristics—mental shortcuts—like the availability heuristic or the representativeness heuristic, which can help us assess situations quickly, but also bias our judgments and compromise our decision-making.    

During a pandemic, the media plays into this, too, for example through use of generic imagery of Asian people wearing masks or language that ties the virus to China. So, when we use heuristics—or make judgments on the fly—we may mischaracterize anyone who appears to be Asian (even if they are not Chinese) as disease carriers. When we do this, we overlook the fact that race is a poor indicator of infection risk: the majority of Asian people living in or visiting the United States have not recently traveled to the area of the first outbreak or been in contact with anyone who has. 

Biased judgments can not only stoke unnecessary fears and promote xenophobic responses, but also lead us to make poor health decisions: for example, we may wrongly believe that avoiding members of certain racial groups minimizes infection risk and be less diligent about protective methods that actually decrease risk, such as wearing masks and keeping distance from all people.

Heuristics and biases can lead us to falsely assume that we should avoid certain people to keep safe. However, one of the best protective methods is keeping physical distance from everyone who is not living in our own households.

How does xenophobia affect us?

There is no convincing evidence suggesting that xenophobia reduces infection rates. While it may have offered some health protection to our ancestors in the evolutionary past, it’s more likely to have a strong negative impact on modern human societies.

For one thing, xenophobia causes social pain for its targets. Unfortunately, we tend to underestimate how much social suffering hurts, suggesting that we might not feel motivated to alleviate it in others. The link between social isolation and negative outcomes for both mental and physical health is strong, and the cost to the economy high. During a pandemic with social distancing requirements in place, most people feel some pain related to isolation, but those who are the targets of xenophobia carry the additional burden of stigmatization and ostracism.

Xenophobic expressions during pandemics can also give rise to stereotypes or strengthen existing ones. We often rely on stereotypes—or generalized beliefs about members of certain groups—to make sense of others, especially when we don’t know them personally. Widespread xenophobia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic may perpetuate racial stereotypes and even legitimize prejudice and discriminatory behavior, especially among those who already hold negative beliefs about certain racial groups.

The Exploratorium exhibit Don't Get Me Wrong invites visitors to explore and revise stereotypes they may have about certain groups of people.

Finally, xenophobia can actually have a negative effect on public health, since people who fear being associated with the coronavirus and subsequently stigmatized might be less likely to seek testing or more reluctant to seek medical care when they have symptoms.

How can we overcome xenophobia?

To decrease xenophobia, we need to tackle the factors that fuel it. For example, if it’s driven by fear of infection, we might be able to reduce it by making people feel more protected; if it’s driven by stereotypes, we can help people revise their beliefs. Here are a few things we can all do to reduce xenophobia in ourselves and others:

  • Stereotypes can be the starting point for prejudice and discrimination, and even hate speech and crimes. We can nip this in the bud by challenging stereotypes. The best way to do this is by getting to know people as individuals; when we do this, we often learn surprising personal things about them that make us revise our generic ideas about them.
  • Remember that heuristics and biases can get in the way of accuracy, and you have the power to override them. When you suspect that someone you don’t know might be a disease carrier, ask yourself how likely it is that they are, and what information you are basing your assumptions on. Don’t use race as the basis for your assessment—chances are, you’ve got it wrong.
  • Report harassment that you experience or witness. Express your concerns when you hear or see anything that reflects prejudice or racist beliefs. 
  • Be mindful of your social media presence. Even when we’re trying to decrease xenophobia, we may inadvertently contribute to it by using biased images and language. Check out these tips from the Association of Asian American Journalists.
  • Wash your hands (often!) and keep your distance (from everyone!) and remind others to do the same. Doing this might just help curb xenophobia, too: research suggests that protective methods like handwashing may alleviate concerns about disease and improve attitudes toward people perceived to be outsiders. 

Remind yourself and others of our shared humanity—this is a collective public health crisis that we need to tackle together. When we feel connected to and identify with not only our community and country, but with people everywhere, it’s harder to feel xenophobic toward anyone.

Child washing hands
Protective measures like handwashing help clear away germs and provide a sense of protection that may reduce bias against perceived outsiders.