A link between pathogens and the propensity towards authoritarian politics has been highlighted by one of the biggest studies of its kind. In regions where the risk of infectious disease is high, humans tend to adopt attitudes and voting patterns that promote conformity, strong central authority, and the rejection of those perceived as “outsiders."
The new study, reported in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, looked at data from the US on infectious disease – including viral hepatitis, herpes, HIV, measles, and chickenpox – in the 1990s and 2000, as well as responses to a psychological survey taken by over 206,000 people in the US between 2017 and 2018. These results were then replicated at an international level using survey data from over 51,000 people across 47 different countries, finding a distinctly similar pattern.
The results showed that the risk of infectious diseases in the US was around four times higher in states with higher rates of authoritarian politics compared to the least authoritarian states, while the most authoritarian nations had a three times higher risk of infectious disease than the least. This remained true even after they accounted for a range of other factors, such as socioeconomic settings, religious beliefs, inequalities, and education level. Revealingly, the study found that higher regional infection rates in the US were closely linked to more votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 US Presidential Election.
“We find a consistent relationship between prevalence of infectious diseases and a psychological preference for conformity and hierarchical power structures – pillars of authoritarian politics,” Dr Leor Zmigrod, lead study author and an expert in the psychology of ideology from the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.
“Higher rates of infectious diseases predicted political attitudes and outcomes such as conservative voting and authoritarian legal structures. Across multiple geographical and historical levels of analysis we see this relationship emerge again and again.”
This idea, known as the “parasite stress theory,” has been around for some time. It has attracted a fair amount of criticism, with some arguing there is a lack of hard causal evidence linking pathogen risk and sociality – but it's a theme that's been identified time and time again.
The theory goes that conformity, authoritarianism, and xenophobia often evolve in cultures that are exposed to a high level of risk from parasites (since then, others have expanded this to other forms of pathogens). In theory, authoritarianism and conformist values emerge as they are perceived as useful for slowing down the transmission of disease by allowing greater control of a population and encouraging vigilance of their social setting.
A 2013 study explains: "Because many disease-causing parasites are invisible, and their actions mysterious, disease control has historically depended substantially on adherence to ritualized behavioral practices that reduced infection risk. Individuals who openly dissented from, or simply failed to conform to, these behavioral traditions therefore posed a health threat to self and others"
While the new research used data gathered before the emergence of COVID-19, the researchers suggest their findings could predict how politics might unfold in the coming years. Other scientists have speculated that the post-pandemic era might see an indulgence of freedom, with mass rejoicing, a resurgence of the arts, and an explosion of sexuality. This work, however, indicates that hardline authoritarian attitudes might be sticking around for a while.
“These findings are a warning sign that disease-avoiding behaviors have profound implications for politics,” added Zmigrod. “Covid-19 might shape people’s tendencies towards conformity and obedience, and this could be converted into authoritarian political preferences, voting patterns, and laws.”
“Health and politics may be more intertwined than we previously envisioned.”