Dr. Murray Weighs In on the Behavioral Immune System

Tulane’s Dr. Damian Murray co-authored the Association for Psychological Science
lead article, Psychological Science in the Wake of COVID-19 Social, Methodological, and  Metascientific Considerations.

The premier article was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in March 2022.

Dr. Murray explained the importance of the behavioral immune system and along with national and international contributors, noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has extensively changed the landscape of psychological science, and it is continuing to raise important questions about the conduct of research.

How did Dr. Murray become involved as a resource for the article?

“I was simply approached by the lead author, as he was familiar with my work and my being among a (formerly much smaller) group of researchers studying the implications of disease threat for cognition, behavior, and culture,” explained Dr. Murray.

The article considers how the psychology of pathogen threat may elucidate many social
phenomena in the wake of COVID-19. One question of concern brought up about this was, “Why should psychological scientists care about COVID-19 and the day-to-day research?”

Dr. Murray explains that, complementary to our immune systems, people focus on avoiding disease-causing objects, including other people whenever possible, which is referred to as a type of “behavioral immune system.” This concept is explained by Murray & Schaller in their 2016 chapter for Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, titled, “The Behavioral Immune System: Implications for Social Cognition, Social Interaction, and Social Influence.”

“Broadly, the behavioral immune system,” said Dr. Murray, “is a set of cognitive, motivational, and behavioral mechanisms that help to minimize the possibility of getting sick in the face of recurrent infectious disease threats.” As an historical note he added, “This may have been more aptly termed the Psychological Immune System, but that had already been claimed.”

Dr. Murray and co-authors explain that a fundamental goal of any organism is to protect itself from threat, and humans must navigate both realistic such as biological threats to health and symbolic threats such as those to group identity, moral values, and worldviews. Because they pose both realistic and symbolic threats, pandemics have high potential to influence many cognitions and behaviors, explained Dr. Murray.

Until recently psychologists have mostly dismissed the implications of pathogen threat for social cognition and behavior. In general, disease avoidance does not involve a great deal of deliberative thought, given that it is motivated by disgust or embedded cultural norms, reported Dr. Murray and co-authors in a 2017 research article.

However, viewed from the functional perspective, most social phenomena have disease-related causes and/or consequences which include relationships, motivations, moral cognition, and even cultural systems and political institutions, explain Murray & Schaller.

What are some of the most interesting research findings in this area?

“I used to answer this question by saying that disease influences the fundamental ways in which we socialize,” said Dr. Murray, “but now that we’ve all been through a world-altering pandemic that seems like common knowledge. I guess now I would say that I consider the most interesting findings to be those outcomes in the areas that people don’t intuitively link to disease, like conformity or moral judgment,” he said. “Are you more likely to condemn someone who morally transgresses when you’re worried about disease? Are you more likely to conform to even the tritest of social norms when you’re more concerned about disease? The research says ‘yes’ to both of these questions,” said Dr. Murray.

When it detects threat, the behavioral immune system activates anti-infection behavior, such as by eliciting disgust and promoting social avoidance, according to Murray & Schaller. The authors state that when this happens, COVID-19 alerts psychologists to uncertain conditions of infection risk that, to date, have been underappreciated and understudied.

What are some of the most practical applications, or main takeaways, regarding the behavioral system that readers might need to know?

“It’s hard to overstate just how important a factor disease has been in how and why we are the humans we are today,” said Dr. Murray. “With access to remarkable modern medicine, it’s easy to forget that throughout human history, infectious disease has been the biggest
threat to our well-being and thriving…it’s been the source of more deaths than all famines, wars, and natural disasters combined,” he said.

“So, in the lab our work is showing that yes—when people are temporarily made aware of a disease threat, they are more likely to vote with the majority, are more likely to condemn those that violate moral norms, and more likely to say that they would prefer fewer sexual partners in the next 5 years (and/or in their lifetimes),” said Dr. Murray.

“I think the bigger takeaways are that we see these effects play out at the societal level as well,” he said. “People living in countries or regions that have had historically higher levels of disease are (on average, of course) more likely to conform to the majority, more likely to
condemn moral-violators, and prefer fewer sexual partners. And even most importantly we see these psychological effects manifest in how countries and societies operate: more disease is associated with less trust of your neighbors, more authoritarian governance, and more restrictions on personal freedoms,” said Dr. Murray.

“We’ve found this when looking at both samples of contemporary nation states and samples of more traditional societies. Another huge downstream effect of disease threat (via its effects on less creative thinking) is less cultural innovation. You see this manifest in pretty much any innovation metric available…Nobel prizes, patents, global innovation scores, whatever.”

What are some of the other interesting findings in Dr. Murray’s publications?

“We’ve been doing a bunch of work over the past few years looking at how becoming a parent influences our political attitudes,” said Dr. Murray. “Most of this work has been led by Nick Kerry, a fantastic former grad student of the lab. As we know, motivations shift when one becomes a parent…as a parent you’re all of a sudden responsible for a very vulnerable other human, and you will be for many years.

“When we started this work,” said Dr. Murray, “we reckoned that maybe you’d see that motivational shift reflected in political attitudes, specifically in attitudes in the domain of social conservatism. Given that socially conservative attitudes emphasize group cohesion, familial stability, and more punitive punishments for people who might pose threats, we
predicted that parenthood is associated with higher political conservatism. This is exactly the pattern we find study after study—not just in America but all around the world. And this pattern is exclusive to social (and not economic) conservatism,” Dr. Murray said. “I think that this is fascinating work because so much work on parenting focuses on the other causal
arrow of how parents influence their children’s attitudes and behaviors. Our work shows how effects work in the opposite direction too; children influence their parents’ psychology simply by virtue of being children.”

How did he become involved in evolutionary psychology?

“I find ‘evolutionary psychology’ to be a term so fraught with baggage and misunderstanding that I don’t use it to categorize research programs or areas,” Dr. Murray said.

“Coming from early training in the biological sciences it never made sense to me why so many branches of psychology were uninterested in human origins, history, development, and culture. An evolutionarily-informed approach to the study of human cognition and behavior is complimentary to—not mutually exclusive of—the more proximal or situational
perspectives we see in the psychological sciences. It simply addresses our most fascinating ‘why’ questions at a different level of analysis,” said Dr. Murray.

“For example, if you were to try to answer the question, ‘Why do people fall in love?’ A common approach could be to look for all of the environmental and social triggers that cause people to fall in love. A complimentary evolutionary perspective could form answers to this question in a different way, by listing the ways in which the tendency to fall in love helped humans survive and thrive throughout history,” he said.

“It takes answers at both levels to best understand why people do what they do. Just as there’s no such thing as ‘non-evolutionary biology,’ neglecting the evolutionary level of analysis in psychology gives us an incomplete understanding of human cognition and behavior,” Dr. Murray said.

“So more basically my involvement/continued interest in evolutionary perspectives on psychology is that it more persistently asks the deeper ‘why’ question. We don’t get satisfactory answers to that ‘why’ question otherwise.”

Some of his current publications include:

Kerry, N., & Murray, D. R. (in press). Politics and parenting. In V. A. Weekes-Shackelford
&T. K. Shackelford (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Parenting. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Kerry, N., & Murray, D. R. (2020). Politics and parental care: Experimental and mediational tests of the causal link between parenting motivation and social conservatism. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11, 284-292.

Murray, D. R., *Prokosch, M., & *Airington, Z. (2019). PsychoBehavioroImmunology:
Connecting the behavioral immune system to its physiological foundations. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 10:200. 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00200

Murray, D. R., Haselton, M. G., Fales, M. R., & Cole, S. W. (2019). Falling in love is associated with immune system gene regulation. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 00, 120- 126.

Damian R. Murray, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, at Tulane University. He has a PhD in Social Psychology and a PhD in Minor Quantitative Methods, from University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.

According to his bio at Tulane, Dr. Murray’s research programs follow two themes:

1) The consequences of a disease-avoidance motive for interpersonal relationships, social attitudes, personality, and cultural differences, and

2) The dynamics of new interpersonal relationships—the individual differences that predict formation, stability, and satisfaction in new romantic relationships, and the implications of these relationships for physiology and health.







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