Has the Covid-19 crisis blown apart the psychological theory that conservatism is an evolutionary response to pathogen avoidance?
That’s a question asked by a Twitter mutual, and it’s certainly an interesting one.
One popular hypothesis that appears to have been completely debunked by the covid-19 crisis is the link between conservatism and pathogen avoidance.
— Yeyo (@RealYeyoZa) August 2, 2020
For all the exceptions to this rule (including me), people on the Left tend to be more in favour of lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing, while those on the Right are more likely to think that shutting down the economy will do more harm – and perhaps even cost more lives in the longer term.
This seems to contradict the theory that behavioural tendencies associated with the Right evolved as a response to the threat of infectious disease. On the assumption that strangers are more likely to carry pathogens that the in-group has no immunity to, the idea is that xenophobia (literally, “fear of the foreign”) developed as an avoidance mechanism.
The most extreme example of conservative pathogen avoidance was probably Adolf Hitler, who ranted about how Jews and Slavs were “infecting” German society, but who also had an obsessive fear of germs and disease. From the very start, the Nazis passed laws ensuring workplaces were clean.
It’s also argued that the world has become more liberal since 1945 because infectious diseases have been gradually wiped out, causing people’s reactionary instincts to be switched off. But if that’s true, why are Right-wingers today so willing to take their chances with the virus while progressives are stuck at home like Howard Hughes?
There could be several factors, one of which is simply age; conservatives tend to be older, and older people see an illness with a fatality rate of around 1% differently to younger people. It’s easy to forget how much safer the world has become; children today are three times less likely to die in childhood than even when I was growing up in the 1980s. The formative years of older generations were even more dangerous, and so, from that perspective, the risks from Covid-19 don’t seem unusually terrifying.
Or if you look at it in terms of moral foundations theory, libertarian-leaning people on the Right hold freedom as a core value, while those on the Left are much more invested in the care foundation — i.e. protecting the vulnerable. This has obvious implications for public health policy.
But perhaps we shouldn’t ignore the sheer overwhelming power of ideological tribalism. Once a position becomes attached to a political side people will rally behind it based purely on their partisan allegiance.
Before the pandemic response became politically polarised, it was corners of the conservative internet warning of disaster, while more liberal outlets were telling us it was no worse than the flu, or that “prejudice” was a bigger danger. Now, almost entirely due to party cues, Right-wingers loudly refuse to wear masks to “own the libs”, while on the other side they tweet hysterically about “Boris the Butcher” or wildly exaggerate the health risks of opening schools.
Perhaps our politics have been influenced by evolutionary responses to pathogens. I think it’s a plausible theory, but it’s also the case that our evolutionary desire to be part of a tribe trumps it.