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It’s Not Fear Driving COVID-19 Panic. It’s Disgust


Throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, incurable skeptics have argued that many COVID-19 measures are based not on science and reason, but on fearmongering by an increasingly autocratic ruling class imposing new norms on an increasingly intolerant and conformist population.

Those even more inclined to skepticism would argue that autocracy, conformity, and intolerance are themselves, by their nature, highly effective public health measures. They evolved in primitive human society precisely because they protect from disease. Disgust, not fear, is the emotion that drives them.

These three postulates point to rational alternatives for the pandemic’s restrictions on civil liberties, and underlie an entirely new way of understanding the history of human conflict.

How Outbreaks Affect Governance

In 2009, building upon data collected by social and biological scientists since the 1980s, researchers from the University of New Mexico published an influential article, “Parasites, democratization, and the liberalization of values across contemporary countries.” Their results showed that high levels of collectivism, authoritarianism, in-group loyalty, contempt for property rights, xenophobia, and sexual restrictiveness in modern countries positively “correspond with high prevalence of infectious diseases” within those countries.

The article argues a remarkable conclusion: “the disease theory of democracy.” The theory is that, more than 100,000 years ago, the human behavioral immune system evolved a “single conditional strategy with two basic tactics,” resulting in outputs over a “large range of values from high collectivism to high individualism” in response to conditions of high and low disease prevalence, respectively.

A large historical range of political systems from autocracy to democracy is the result. When disease is low: “(1) the socially powerful adopt a view of the out-group as being comprised of people much like those in power, and equally human, and (2) the disenfranchised out-group devalues authority and considers [itself] as valuable as the elite.” When disease is high, the reverse happens. Compared to disease prevalence, factors like economic development, armed conflict, and resource availability play a lesser role in determining the system selected.

Disgust, Not Fear

Importantly, fear is not the emotion that bends the curve of history back toward injustice whenever a new disease emerges. Fear is a partially cohesive force, and in social animals it evolved to mount joint defenses against violent threats.

A pandemic is different from war or natural disaster: the more people are “in it together,” the more likely they are to infect each other and cause each other’s deaths. Except in pathological cases, there is little risk of death by violence from one’s own mother, for example. Not so with death by disease. Different reflexes are needed to react to the different risk. A different emotion evolved to trigger them: disgust.

Since the 1980s, social psychologists like Paul Rozin, his celebrity student Jonathan Haidt, Mark Schaller, and many other brilliant people began to look closer at why humans experience disgust. Since then, the field has grown to include hard bioscience data, which corroborate and elaborate the psych findings. Fundamentally, the results show the emotion of disgust evolved to protect from communicable diseases by activating the body’s pathogen avoidance reflexes, such as recoiling, purging, and social distancing—defined collectively as the “behavioral immune system.”

The behavioral immune system, like the fear-driven “freeze-fight-or-flight” reflex, is autonomously controlled, independently of rational thought, by subconscious processes prone to false alarm. Its reactions to disgust stimuli are “immediate and compelling even in the face of their apparently irrational nature.” It causes a profound shift from attraction to repulsion, seemingly in an instant, with little rational basis therefore apparent to the unaffected observer.

George Orwell wrote that four words revealed the real secret of class distinctions in his time: “The lower classes smell.”

Race-hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a [criminal], but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks–habitually stinks, I mean. However well you may wish him, however much you may admire his mind and character, if his breath stinks he is horrible and in your heart of hearts you will hate him.

The Road to Wigan Pier (1937).

It is when members of the in-group are “brought up to believe that [members of the out-group] are dirty that the harm is done,” Orwell wrote. Disgust, perhaps more so than fear or greed, appears to be the primary source of most human conflict.

How Disgust Changes People

To ease a society’s shift toward stratification and autocracy, disgust activates profound personality changes. Exposure to disgust stimuli lowers individualism, tolerance, extraversion, and openness to new experiences. At the same time, disgust increases obedience, ethnocentrism, sexual puritanism, and conformity.

Before modern medicine, disgust researchers argue, “the prevention of infection depended substantially on superstitious adherence to local rituals and other cultural norms,” as invented and enforced through moral condemnation by a local in-group elite. Such personality changes can make superstition the new norm in a formerly rational society.

New data collected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic accord with disgust research predictions. Pre-pandemic disgust sensitivity in individual subjects neatly tracks with their reported anxiety during the pandemic. Previously measured disgust sensitivity levels in Americans, Poles, and Australians have significantly increased since lockdowns began.

Why Aren’t Conservatives More Disgusted?

Instead of sounding the alarm, however, the disgust field seems to be largely missing the significance of its own predictions. This may be due to an unfortunate taste among some liberal psychologists and psychiatrists for diagnosing those they identify as conservatives with having various mental weaknesses relative to liberals, including a higher sensitivity to disgust.

The “disease theory of democracy” authors, for example, oddly concluded that collectivism is a conservative value and that liberals are rugged individualists. Before the pandemic, Haidt condescended: “Conservatives react more strongly than liberals to signs of danger, including the threat of germs and contamination, and even low-level threats such as sudden blasts of white noise.”

After “conservatives” generally did not react this way to COVID-19, but “liberals” did, Vox’s Ezra Klein interviewed Haidt for an article that asked: “Why are liberals more afraid of the coronavirus than conservatives?” Haidt blamed it on Trump. “Liberals were acting out of care, not fear,” Klein paraphrased another liberal psychologist’s voxplanation.

Rampant politicization is a major intellectual hobble on the disgust field’s otherwise brilliant minds. In reality, disgust reinforces character traits that both sides of the aisle, selectively for reasons of politics instead of psychology, rightly condemn as the key sources of dysfunction in modern society: racism, socialism, homophobia, misogyny, authoritarianism, cultism, and blind obedience.

The courts and the political branches alike ought to take the corrosive role of disgust into account when considering the costs and benefits of any COVID-19 public health measure—and when reflecting on whether unconscious in-group bias, inflamed by COVID-19 disgust, may be influencing their own conclusions. The same advice applies to disgust researchers.

COVID Isn’t Bad Enough to Keep the Disgust Going

Right before COVID-19 emerged, Yale University historian Frank Snowden noted how early modern European campaigns against the bubonic plague “marked a vast extension of state power into spheres of human life that had never before been subject to political authority.” In “Epidemics and Society,” a history book that now reads like prophecy, Snowden wrote that in the Age of Absolutism ushered in by the Black Death, “the unanswerable argument of a public health emergency” justified “control over the economy and the movement of people,” “surveillance and forcible detention,” “the invasion of homes and the extinction of civil liberties.” The future looks similarly grim.

There is, however, one major aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that prevents a return to autocracy from becoming an entirely foregone conclusion. Compared to past pandemics, the coronavirus is not exactly virulent. There are no bodies in the streets. Statistically, many people do not personally know anyone who died of the disease. Most, however, know someone who caught it and recovered.

COVID-19 risk salience is largely constructed by received “expert” wisdom, in the form of media reports and government lockdown orders. In many ways, both the risk and the wisdom now appear to be illusory. From CDC to CNN, public trust is cratering from low to none, and even the skeptics might hope the illusion will soon fade away.

Folk wisdom archetypes, like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “Chicken Little,” educate children to recognize fearmongering by both rational and irrational actors, as well as to guard against the false alarms fear often causes. No such explicit advice yet exists for disgust. In light of recent science and history, however, society would be well advised to stop feeding its disgust mongers.


So hypochondriac fancies represent
Ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
Till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
And all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.

—Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722).