What Role Does Pathogen-Avoidance Psychology Play in Pandemics?

Joshua M. Ackerman*, Joshua M. Tybur, Aaron D. Blackwell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalReview articleAcademicpeer-review

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A substantial body of research has illuminated psychological adaptations motivating pathogen avoidance, mechanisms collectively known as the behavioral immune system. Can knowledge about these mechanisms inform how people respond to widespread disease outbreaks, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) [coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)] pandemic? We review evidence suggesting that the evolutionary history of the behavioral immune system, and the cues that activate it, are distinct in many ways from modern human experiences with pandemics. Moreover, the behaviors engaged by this system may have limited utility for combating pandemic diseases like COVID-19. A better understanding of the points of distinction and points of overlap between our evolved pathogen-avoidance psychology and responses to pandemics may help us realize a more precise and intervention-ready science.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)177-186
Number of pages10
JournalTrends in Cognitive Sciences
Issue number3
Early online date26 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2021


  • behavioral immune system
  • evolution
  • health
  • infectious disease
  • social psychology


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