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Joint fellows’ publication on prejudice against ethnic outgroups

Two AIAS Former Fellows Isabel Kusche and Jessica L. Barker join different academic disciplines to critically analyse the conceptual framework of using evolutionary psychology as explanation for prejudice against ethnic outgroups. Their findings, published in ‘Frontiers in Psychology’ this week, highlights a need for including the sociocultural perspective.

Photo credit: Colourbox.

Why do people have a propensity to exclude or otherwise discriminate against immigrants and ethnic outgroups? After AIAS Former fellows behavioural ecologist Jessica L. Barker and sociologist Isabel Kusche attended a talk at AIAS that attempted to answer this question with the help of evolutionary psychology, they decided to work together on a critical appraisal of this type of explanation. The result of their collaboration has been published this week in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology in the article entitled ‘Pathogens and Immigrants: A Critical Appraisal of the Behavioral Immune System as an Explanation of Prejudice Against Ethnic Outgroups.’ 

Kusche and Barker focused on the concept of the behavioural immune system (BIS), which evolutionary psychologists hypothesize to produce automatic disgust reactions as an evolved response to the threat of pathogens, even in the absence of consciously detected cues of such threats. A growing body of literature suggests this mechanism as an explanation for many present-day political attitudes, including xenophobia and prejudice against immigrants, often implying that such attitudes form quite independently from the influences of education, public policy and political rhetoric. 

Drawing on their respective disciplinary backgrounds, Jessie and Isabel had similar reservations regarding such an explanation. Behavioural ecology assumes that behaviour has a genetic basis, and asks how an organism’s environment shapes the evolution of its behaviour - meaning that environmental influence, past and present, is key in evolved behaviours. Sociology has proposed that dominant cultural beliefs as well as power differentials and efforts to preserve them are the driving force behind stigmatization and prejudice. 

Multiple factors call for multiple disciplines

In other words, Jessie and Isabel both missed the inclusion of the contemporary social and political factors that create the context in which the BIS may react. Their conceptual analysis of existing hypotheses about why the BIS would be triggered even in the absence of visceral disgust elicitors identified general unfamiliarity or atypicality as the hypothesized cues. In the conceptual article, they show that the perception of such cues inevitably depends on the cultural and societal context in which people learn what is typical. It follows that aspects such as the mass media representation of and political debate about immigrants are decisive factors for any effect of the BIS on individual attitudes toward immigrants. 

The conclusion that social learning is part and parcel of any activation of the BIS suggests new ways toward integrating insights from evolutionary psychology, sociology and behavioural ecology in the design and interpretation of empirical research. 

Read the full scientific article

Pathogens and Immigrants: A Critical Appraisal of the Behavioral Immune System as an Explanation of Prejudice Against Ethnic Outgroups’ by

Isabel Kusche and Jessica L. Barker in Frontiers in Psychology, 25 October 2019 https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02412 


Isabel Kusche, AIAS Former Fellow

Jessica L. Barker, AIAS Former Fellow, Research Advisor
The Behavioural Insights Team, London, UK