The Pandemic and Xenophobia: An Evolutionary Perspective

Threats to humanity, particularly the insidious nature of pandemics, can actually increase xenophobic behaviour in humans. Our evolutionary history can explain why.

This pandemic has emerged shrouded in racism. We’ve seen it in the communities that it disproportionately affects, in the scapegoating of ethnic people and in the words of our leaders. The public data gathered over the past year has made it starkly clear that racism itself is a public health issue; people from ethnic minority groups are suffering the most from the virus and very little has been done in the way of examining these ties (10). Yet the links between Covid-19 and the virus appear to go even deeper to a level where human behaviour itself is implicated.

Particularly at the beginning of the pandemic, high levels of racially motivated abuse were reported globally, from a 300% increase in racially violent social media hashtags against China and Chinese people (12) to Asian doctors in the UK being racially abused and rejected by patients (11). In Spain, two men attacked a Chinese-American which left him in a coma for two days (13). These racist sentiments aren’t solely limited to Chinese individuals; in India and Sri Lanka attacks on Muslims have also risen in relation to Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement came to an inevitable and necessary head along the same timeline.

So why is this happening?

Fear and uncertainty are the key driving forces for racism and xenophobia to thrive, and the pandemic is the perfect storm to trigger these emotions. People act more irrationally when anxious, and there is a long history of infectious disease outbreaks being associated with scapegoating and the ‘othering’ of groups of people – Jewish people were blamed for the bubonic plague, the 1918 influenza pandemic was demonised as the ‘Spanish Flu’ and HIV/AIDS was pinned on homosexuals or Haitians, depending on where in the world you were.

These instances are not coincidental. Decades of research across fields of psychology, neuroscience and cognitive anthropology have been dedicated towards understanding the evolutionary roots of racism and they all unite on a common thread; human beings are designed to form social groups and coalitions and prioritise the ones that they personally belong to (7). Indeed, it is one of our most basic instincts as humans. For our ancestors, belonging to a group meant increased safety, shared resources and reproductive opportunities.

As a result of this we have evolved as an incredibly social species, to the extent of which studies have shown that solitary confinement is deemed as equivalent to a form of actual torture (14). This is echoed in just how difficult we’ve been finding it to social distance from our loved ones during this pandemic.

So, forming groups is a good thing… until it isn’t.

Inter-Group Competition

The problem with forming groups is that at some point, there are going to be lots of groups and these groups are going to compete with one another as resources are limited. In the past these would have been survival needs such as water and food sources, or land to live on, and so it was in an individual’s best interest to focus on their own group and support the members within as this would ultimately contribute to their own survival and prosperity (16). In short, it would be in your own best interest to favour the members in your ‘in-group’ over members in ‘out-groups’. This creates an ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy which is still evident today, ranging from wars to football games to pandemics – known as “inter-group competition”.

That’s quite a jump there – how can wars be in the same category as football games?

Multiple studies have shown that these groups can be formed on entirely arbitrary categories, as meaningless as a shared preference for an artist (18) or where you studied (17). Often, there’s actually no real reason for these groups to be formed for any reason other than for their own sake (17), particularly when necessary resource acquisition isn’t up for grabs. We are primed towards viewing the world in coalitions and preferring our in-group, so even when the line being drawn is objectively arbitrary, we are nonetheless predisposed towards viewing our group members as ‘smarter, better, more moral and more just than members of outgroups’ (7).

A particularly salient study centred around football perfectly showcases the arbitrary nature of in-group preference. Football fans from Manchester United were placed into a setting where experimenters compelled them to focus on their team so that their in-group was at the forefront of their mind. The experimenters then exposed them to someone tripping over in front of them and injuring themselves. The aim of the study was to see whether the participants would be more compassionate to someone who was visibly a member of their in-group. Indeed, when the victim was wearing a football shirt that matched the fan’s team, they were almost 90% likely to stop and help. If he was wearing an opposing team’s shirt and clearly an out-group member, only 30% offered him assistance (20).

The Foundations of Racism

This goes a significant way towards explaining racism. Visible differences are an easy distinguisher and a cognitively simple line to draw so it’s almost intuitive for someone to feel more at ease around people who look like them – their very appearance is an obvious signal of an in-group member. This can lead to prejudice against people of a different race or ethnicity to oneself, and the ramifications of this are evident in the world today, from individual to institutional levels of racism.

However, just because prejudicial behaviour is intuitive, this doesn’t mean that it is inevitable, and it certainly doesn’t mean that it is morally right. Our brains have ancient processes embedded into them which can exist at a total mismatch to the contemporary world we live in today. Take sugar for example; our bodies evolved to grab calories wherever we could get them as food was scarce for most of our evolution. Therefore, seeking out sugary food sources was an easy route to loading on board the essential calories that we need to exist. However, in today’s world where we have an abundance of sugar in every corner shop, this lure is a recipe for obesity related illnesses. Our brains simply haven’t caught up with our environment and the consequences of this in action can be lethal.

However, humans are conscious, intelligent beings which means that we are capable of rational thought and can challenge these biases – and indeed many of us work towards this in our everyday life. However, when you add in another layer of a global pandemic, where emotions such as fear and uncertainty are massively exacerbated, these biases can spiral even further.

The Effect of The Pandemic

Glancing back at our pre-historical environments (as almost all facets of human psychology can be traced back here), being ill was an incredibly costly form of survival (4). Feeling lethargic and requiring rest are some of the defining characteristics of most illnesses and this would have made it difficult to carry out basic needs such as gathering food or taking care of children. Even having a fever causes an increase of roughly 13% more energy consumption (21), which is expensive when food is not readily available. Although the immune system is an excellent back-up for when you do fall ill, it’s best to stay that way – as a back-up – and avoid having to use it in the first place.

Therefore, anything which would have decreased the likelihood of introducing a pathogen into the body would have conferred a distinct survival advantage. Thus, enters the ‘Behavioural Immune System’ (BIS) which acts as a kind of ‘first line of defence’ which serves to avoid you from even coming into contact with pathogens. An example of this would be the disgust response – imagine ordering a meal at a restaurant and as the waiter brings it to you from across the room you see him sneeze directly into it and continue onwards to place it right in front of you. Or you see someone on the street drop an apple into a muddy puddle and carry on eating it anyway. You probably just visibly turned your head away or screwed up your nose, maybe you even felt a bit nauseous at the thought – this is an example of one facet of your behavioural immune system trying to protect you from potential pathogens and is wholly warranted. It stops you from ever interacting with the pathogen in the first place so that your immune system isn’t even required.

However, what isn’t warranted are other facets of the immune system which operate on a ‘better safe than sorry’ logic (4) and studies have shown that the BIS executed this way can actually increase xenophobic and racist attitudes due to its sensitivity. This leads to a lot of error-prone subconscious decisions being made. Xenophobia stemming from the behavioural immune system subconsciously rests on the idea that ‘people who look similar to me are likely to have a similar immune system to me’ i.e. their biology would be very similar to one’s own when it comes to potential exposure to foreign disease. Some of the most significant diseases in our history were brought in by foreigners – for example, Europeans settling in the Americas brought with them smallpox and influenza which ultimately wiped out the indigenous people who had no immunity to these novel diseases (4).

This means that, once again, visual indicators of someone potentially belonging to an out-group triggers that in-group favouritism, but this time with elements of fear added in, making humans even more susceptible to harbouring negativity towards out-groups – or xenophobia. Of course, though, in today’s day and age, our daily environment is filled with a cacophony of different ethnicities and cultures which ultimately means nothing in the way of foreign pathogens. Therefore, just as our sugar addiction may have once served an important purpose and is now redundant, so is this pathogen-triggered xenophobia.

What Does This Mean for Navigating Our World, Organisations and Institutions Today?

It means that inclusivity and inclusive leadership is more important now than ever. Although racism and xenophobia may be exacerbated in times of fear and uncertainty, we have also seen incredible displays of kindness and community when we all focus on our common goals and humanity, rather than our differences and personal interests (6). As the late Jo Cox said in her first parliamentary speech; ‘we have far more in common than that which divides us’. It is this we need to focus on – viewing humanity as a whole, instead of as separate parts.

“It’s taken centuries for our brains to create these negative schemas about particular groups of people that have been marginalized in society… and so it will take a really concerted, intentional effort to develop the counter-stereotypes that are required to move them out of our brains and replace them with others.” (18)

We have seen that forming coalitions and groups happens on an unconscious level – it is a rapid and automatic judgement of whether an individual may pose a threat as an out-group member and it is an outdated mechanism. A way to override these unconscious judgements, therefore, is to utilise that which makes humans, human – by engaging rational thought. We must be aware of our implicit biases and take active steps towards engaging our conscious brain that is capable of logic.

‘While we may all be predisposed to a background level on unconscious racial bias, we also have the power to do something about it’ (17)

The first step is to realise your own implicit biases and challenge these. An excellent tool is the ‘Project Implicit’ test from Harvard University which highlights your automatic preferences. Acknowledging the problem and appreciating that it happens to all of us on some level is incredibly important in avoiding the defensive response that it could ignite.

The next step is to challenge these biases which is slightly less straightforward. Many Diversity and Inclusion professionals know that unconscious bias training simply isn’t enough – it raises awareness of the issues, but it doesn’t actually address it. What does work, however, is designing our way out of inequality by fixing triggers in our external sphere of influence. This fixes the systemic problems and helps to redefine the environment that the brain makes these unconscious associations. A key part of addressing this issue starts with our leaders.

1. The Role of Our Leaders

Environmental cues, such as the behaviour of our leaders, can either enable or deter racial abuse. For example, Donald Trump’s labelling of the virus as the ‘China Virus’ or the ‘Kung Flu’ sends a strong signal to the community that polarising groups of people is acceptable, and this can create unconscious associations as he clearly posits an out-group to scapegoat. As fear and uncertainty drive the Behavioural Immune System to encourage an aversion of people who look different to oneself and focus on in-groups, we need leaders who lead with empathy and who keep the community informed so that individuals feel reassured and rely less on automatic stereotyping (6).

This is equally true for leaders of organisations; they need to exemplify their behaviour as a role model as a signal to their employees that empathy and inclusion is the way forward. Diversity training for managers and employees is an initiative that all organisations should prioritise in order to weed out the roots of racism and xenophobia.

2. What We Have in Common

Another method is to appreciate our common humanity – particularly in this time of fear. As we saw earlier, groups can be formed on entirely arbitrary bases and physical differences are a cognitively easy line to draw. To overcome these barriers, it would serve us well to think about what it is that we have in common with people from other walks of life, whatever this may be, and practise empathy towards others. We have seen this play out in real time; as the pandemic spread and the virus became a global issue instead of a localised threat, racist attacks have somewhat lessened, countries have shared resources and we have achieved the unthinkable with a global vaccine created and distributed in under a year.

3. Divisive Algorithms

Lastly – the issue of technology. Originally an equal-voice platform where everyone had the ability to project their views in the world, social media is nowadays greatly contributing towards our polarisation. Social media algorithms have created ‘echo chambers’, where our own beliefs and perceptions of the world are reflected straight back at us. On the surface, personalised newsfeeds and adverts sound great – we have content that is directly relevant to us delivered right into our hands, expertly filtered through the billions of web pages on the internet. But the reality is that when we are never offered an opposing view to our own, we lack the ability to make an informed decision about the topic at hand. Further to this, news organisations are growing more and more desperate to make sure that their articles stay interesting above the plethora of others available, and so use affective engagement (22) to emotionally hack users in order to glean some of their attention. This also delivers that essential dopamine hit that makes scrolling so addictive. This means that news headlines are getting more and more emotionally triggering – and as negative emotions are most likely to trigger a response in humans – headlines that incite some sort of anger or fear are more likely to get engaged with.

This, in turn, leads to digital tribalism. Algorithms group people together into shared echo-chambers and expose them mostly to the ideology of that digital tribe – this is how someone’s newsfeed can ‘become the extremes of conservatism, liberalism, different religions, climate change worriers or deniers, or other ideologies’ (19). Sensationalised news articles are filtered in, and this is bolstered by similarly subscribing tribemates who like and comment on them. This clearly creates an in-group based off of shared beliefs compared to an out-group who don’t. As we already know, fear and uncertainty can exacerbate this divide even further and causes us to trust the information relayed to us via our own tribe over others to an even greater extent. Confirmation bias also plays a significant role – our newsfeeds are designed to keep us engaged by deliberately validating (or triggering) our thinking. As a result, we end up with social media that caters primarily to one school of thinking which hinders any kind of diversity of thought.

Steps We Can Take

Luckily, we can take steps to mitigate the effect of all of this external polarisation that we are faced with:

  1. Firstly, just acknowledging the fact that social media (and in some examples, the mainstream media) have ulterior agendas to keep you, the user, engaged, and in doing so, are creating pockets of tribalism by doing so. However harmless the tribe may seem on the inside, it is likely increasing animosity towards those on the outside – think fitness blogs/internalised fatphobia. Echo-chambers ultimately fracture us into in-groups and out-groups, and we must consciously work to counter this.
  2. Secondly, we can practise being more inclusive both online and in person. Engaging more with people or news sources with different viewpoints can help to break out of the echo-chamber that the algorithm has created for us and achieve a more objective perspective.
  3. Thirdly, don’t blindly follow your tribe leaders without question. Humans with power are just as fallible as those without, and often they practise less empathy than they should, making them poor role models.

To Conclude:

I’d like to end this article on a note of reflection. I truly believe that in order to fully solve a problem, we must understand it. There is a reason that racism is so prevalent and persistent despite it being so morally deplorable, and this is because it is based on cognitive evolutionary mechanisms that are completely out of touch with the contemporary world today. Mechanisms that, in part, are being intentionally triggered by modern technology simply in order to create more ad revenue. I hope that by understanding that humans are more than their unconscious, irrational and tribalistic minds, we can make substantial steps towards overriding them together by practising empathy, inclusion and remembering our common humanity.

“I think at best [this understanding] will spark curiosity and an awareness that biases do not make us bad people — they actually make us human — but that we do have a capacity to override them. It’s really important for us to build in systems and practices that help us do that.” – McGill Johnson, Executive Director of the Perception Institute (18)

[excerpts from this article first published in DiversityQ]


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