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The behavioral immune system (and why it matters)

Author(s): Schaller M, Park JH

Abstract

Like many other animals, human beings engage in behavioral defenses against infectious pathogens. The behavioral immune system consists of a suite of psychological mechanisms that (a) detect cues connoting the presence of infectious pathogens in the immediate environment, (b) trigger disease-relevant emotional and cognitive responses, and thus (c) facilitate behavioral avoidance of pathogen infection. However, the system responds to an overly general set of superficial cues, which can result in aversive responses to things (including people) that pose no actual threat of pathogen infection. In addition, the system is flexible, such that more strongly aversive responses occur under conditions in which perceivers are (or merely perceive themselves to be) more vulnerable to pathogen infection. Recent research reveals many provocative implications—for the experience of disgust, for extraversion and social interaction, for xenophobia and other prejudices, and for the origins of cultural differences.

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