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Study Links Racial Prejudices And Disease Outbreaks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One dangerous side effect of this pandemic is prejudice. A new study shows that as people try to protect themselves from getting sick, they can turn on those they perceive as different. The host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast, Shankar Vedantam, joins us to talk about it.

Hi, Shankar.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Explain what this study showed about the connections between disease and prejudice.

VEDANTAM: Well, researchers have been asking for a while, Ari, if there's a connection between patterns of prejudice and patterns of infectious diseases. The thinking is if you live in a place that is at high risk for disease outbreaks, you're more likely to view strangers or people from other groups with suspicion. In a new analysis of both explicit and implicit prejudice of more than 75,000 Americans, psychologist Brian O'Shea and his colleagues do find a correlation between infectious disease prevalence across the United States and prejudice among both blacks and whites. Here's O'Shea.

BRIAN O'SHEA: If you're a resident of a state that has higher infectious disease rates, these residents express higher in-group preference or out-group disdain. So if you're a white participant, you have a stronger pro-white, anti-black bias. And if you're a black participant, you have a stronger pro-black, anti-white bias.

SHAPIRO: Interesting. So bias is running in both directions, not just from the majority group to the minority group.

VEDANTAM: That's right, Ari. Now, it's worth pointing out, of course, that this is a correlational study. We're seeing an overlap between two things. We're hypothesizing there could be a connection between them. O'Shea and his colleagues added an experimental component to the study. They showed white volunteers who were especially concerned about their health - people with what they call germ aversion - a number of different images. Some showed people who were sick and coughing and sneezing. Others showed neutral images, and still others showed scary pictures that were related to terrorism.

O'Shea said that researchers found that among white Americans with germ aversion, images of sick people significantly increased their explicit prejudice, much more so than images of terrorism or the neutral images. So this lends credence to the hypothesis that there is a connection between disease concerns and prejudice.

SHAPIRO: Tell us what that means for this moment now because during this pandemic, we've seen so many reports of prejudice against Asian Americans from people who are angry about the disease's origins in China. So what does this mean for the coronavirus?

VEDANTAM: You're absolutely right, Ari. And it's not just Asian Americans in the United States. Across the world, people who are considered outsiders have seen, you know, growing numbers of examples of prejudice and even xenophobia. O'Shea says that what we're seeing with prejudice patterns in the COVID-19 pandemic is entirely consistent with his data. Here's O'Shea.

O'SHEA: If you're living in a region with higher infectious diseases or there's a pandemic that breaks out, such as Ebola or the current COVID-19 crisis, you're going to see more intergroup tensions and racial prejudice occur in these kind of environments.

SHAPIRO: Well, it sounds like what he's saying is that this is not necessarily unique to COVID-19. Does that mean that rising prejudice is going to be inevitable whenever there is a disease that people are afraid of?

VEDANTAM: I'm glad you asked me that question, Ari, because I think the study is making the case that in some ways, there is an intuitive connection between disease outbreaks and prejudice. And in some ways, when you have pandemics break out, it might be somewhat natural to see diseases - to see prejudice rise as well.

The study is not making the case, of course, that prejudice is the appropriate response to pandemics. In fact, besides being ethically problematic, prejudice is actually deeply counterproductive. It's a distraction. It causes people to stay in the shadows. It delays sharing of information that can save lives. Ultimately, Ari, we really are in this thing together.

SHAPIRO: That is Shankar Vedantam, host of NPR's Hidden Brain podcast. This week, they look at the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on social isolation and loneliness.

Thank you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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