The Behavioral Immune System

This is a long read.  It’s even longer than one might hope – there’s a link at the end of chapter one to move to the second chapter.  Still it moves on to a social phenomenon that may explain some of the behaviors we’re seeing on masking, vaccinating, medical treatments, gain of function, weaponizing the virus and so on.  In short, it’s a long article, but you might find it worth reading.  I found it after it was shared by Jordan Peterson . . . so if you like Dr. Peterson, you will probably like the article.  If you don’t like him, you probably won’t. 

The author, Norman Doidge, describes the behavioral immune system:

And yet, ever since they were made available, vaccines have been controversial, and it has almost always been difficult to have a nonemotionally charged discussion about them. One reason is that in humans (and other animals), any infection can trigger an archaic brain circuit in most of us called the behavioral immune system (BIS). It’s a circuit that is triggered when we sense we may be near a potential carrier of disease, causing disgust, fear, and avoidance. It is involuntary, and not easy to shut off once it’s been turned on.”

Disgust, fear, and avoidance – should I be disgusted by people who avoid vaccination?  Is it right that I fear and avoid them?  Should I avoid masking because Anthony Fauci had came out with conflicting statements and has used public funds to torture beagles in unjustifiable experiments?  Should I hate the Chinese scientists who conducted the gain of function research and weaponized the virus?  This behavioral immune system is strong stuff when it works alongside confirmation bias.

The BIS is different; it evolved to prevent us from getting infected in the first place, by making us hypersensitive to hygiene, hints of disease in other people, even signs that they are from another tribe—since, in ancient times, encounters with different tribes could wipe out one’s own tribe with an infectious disease they carried. Often the “foreign” tribe had its own long history of exposure to pathogens, some of which it still carried, but to which it had developed immunity in some way. Members of the tribe were themselves healthy, but dangerous to others. And so we developed a system whereby anything or anyone that seems like it might bear significant illness can trigger an ancient brain circuit of fear, disgust, and avoidance.”

I see it on Facebook, hear it in comments.  The BIS makes it into columns and letters to the editor.  I just didn’t have a name for it before I read the article – how well he covers the hostilities against our unvaccinated neighbors.

One needn’t agree with the decisions or actions of the vaccine hesitant in order to learn something from them and about them, and about society as a whole. They pay attention to, and are vigilant about, different issues than the vaccinated, and have strong feelings about the people and institutions involved in our public health—particularly politicians, the drug regulatory process, and pharmaceutical companies. For many, vaccine hesitancy is not simply about the vaccines; it’s about the absence of faith in the wider systems that brought us the vaccines. “Public health moves at the speed of trust,” notes physician and author Rishi Manchanda. If we want our public health system to function better—safer, swifter, in ways that more effectively safeguard the lives and livelihoods of all citizens—it must be rooted not in coercion but in confidence, and not only among the majority.”

It is worth reading the whole article.  The concept that “Public health moves at the speed of trust.” is real – an announcement from someone who has frequently erred in the past is unlikely to sway the people who recognize his or her errors.  I suspect the worst of those are people who failed up – managed to rewrite their failures and get promoted instead of fired. 

Chapter 3 ends not with modern reporting or theory but quotes John Stuart Mill

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.”

Doidge closes with “To find that limit and maintain it becomes the difficult but essential task when a plague besets a democracy—especially one that wishes to remain in good enough condition to survive it.”

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