COVID-19 Could Nudge Minds and Societies Towards Authoritarianism

We further discovered that the relationship between infection rates and authoritarianism was specific to infections that can be acquired from other humans, such as measles or cholera. The effect was absent for infectious diseases that can only be acquired from nonhuman species, such as rabies or Lyme disease.

These results support the idea that there is a social and behavioral mechanism connecting infection risk and authoritarianism. A high prevalence of human-to-human infections appears to lead to conformist and obedient social arrangements that potentially reduce the risk of people being infected by those who do not conform or resemble the majority. Social diseases like COVID-19 may therefore sculpt social ideologies and institutions.

How to Overcome COVID’s Influence
In the COVID-19 era, we have all been living with overactivated behavioral immune systems. We have changed how we socialize and relate to other people; who we allow to enter our countries; and how we calculate the balance between personal freedom and collective safety.

What does this mean for our political futures? Will the fear of COVID-19 push us towards living in more authoritarian societies? How do we restore a psychological balance – and a preference for political anti-authoritarianism – without endangering ourselves and others?

The first inevitable step is to decrease real infection risks. Without a reduction in real health risks through effective vaccination programs and health policies, our all-too-human bodies will naturally tend towards defensiveness, conformity and an aversion to threat.

Indeed, COVID-19 has brought about a global wave of authoritarian policies that have justified the tightening of national borders and limitations of everyday rights. In our study, we found that even historical infection rates from decades earlier predict what citizens believe, who they vote for and how they are governed today. Pandemics may have long-lasting and profound ramifications for politics.

However, while our instincts to avoid infection are inbuilt – the behavioral immune system has been documented in species as varied as mice, frogs and chimpanzees – humans are endowed with magnificent mental capacities to overcome biases and flexibly adapt to change. If it is our highly evolved imagination that facilitates the behavioral immune system, then it is also our rich and compassionate imagination that can pull us out of its toxic side-effects.

Safe contact with those who we are instructed to avoid – even imaginary, intellectual or virtual contact, through film or literature or news or friends – is a powerful antidote to the xenophobia that can emerge when we fear infection. These forms of nonphysical touch can remind us of all we have in common and all we can lose if we shun contact and care.

Perhaps the way forward lies in adopting anti-authoritarian stances that champion openness, inclusion and scientific reasoning rather than mythical, ideological or conspiratorial thinking. Overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic and the contagious divisions within our politics may thus be intertwined tasks. The health of society – the collective “body politic” – requires the health and resilience of our bodies and minds. Immunity is fundamentally political.

Leor Zmigrod is Research Fellow in the Psychology of Ideologies, University of Cambridge. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.