All Commentary
Thursday, February 6, 2020 Leer en Español

Is the Wuhan Coronavirus a Threat to Human Flourishing?

Psychological adaptations to disease have played a significant role in the natural selection of cultural values in human evolutionary history.

Image Credit: Flickr-The U.S. Food and Drug Administration | CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)

As the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread (as of Monday, there were nearly 17,000 cases and 361 deaths in China alone), people around the world are understandably alarmed. While governments, airlines, and other globally connected organizations have taken steps to limit further contagion, some individuals are taking their own precautions by limiting contact with Chinese people. This has raised concerns that xenophobic attitudes toward Chinese people are also spreading.

As the coronavirus continues to spread, we should be concerned that it will be accompanied by a wave of prejudice against Chinese people.While some of the reactions we have observed thus far may indeed be motivated by inherent bigotry, the fear of contracting a highly infectious disease without a cure has led many people to exercise a behavioral response known as a psychological immune system adaption: avoiding interaction with Chinese people.

In Canada, for instance, thousands of parents in one school district circulated a petition calling on the school board to keep students whose families have recently visited China home for several weeks. New York City’s Chinatown experienced a significant decline in the number of school groups visiting cultural centers during the recent Lunar New Year. In South Korea, a labor union requested that its workers be exempt from making food deliveries to communities with large Chinese populations. Businesses in several Asian countries have reportedly posted signs indicating that Chinese customers are not welcome.

Parasite Stress Theory of Values (PSTV)

While such reactions are likely not proportionate to the risk of infection, they nonetheless represent efforts to avoid people who are potentially infected with a commutable and dangerous disease. According to the PSTV, such anti-pathogenic behaviors can lead to the development of “ancestrally adaptive feelings, attitudes, and values about and behaviors toward out-group” members, or those who potentially carry novel diseases.

Psychological adaptations to disease have played a significant role in the natural selection of cultural values in human evolutionary history. People living in regions with high levels of pathogenic stress have avoided social and economic interaction with out-group members to minimize exposure to contagious diseases. There is a very strong negative cross-country correlation between historical disease prevalence and contemporary individualism.This has led to the development of various forms of prejudice toward out-group members, including philopatry, xenophobia, neophobia, and ethnocentrism.

Public health concerns and the development of prejudices toward certain groups are not, however, the only potential negative consequences of the spread of infectious diseases. The PSTV suggests that the prejudices developed in response to high pathogenic stress have, in turn, lead to the emergence of more collectivistic cultural values across time. Meanwhile, people living in regions that historically faced lower levels of pathogenic stress have been more open to economic and social interactions with outsiders, leading to the emergence of individualistic cultural values such as tolerance, trust, and openness.

Indeed, there is a very strong negative cross-country correlation between historical disease prevalence and contemporary individualism, as depicted in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Plots relationship between Hofstede’s Individualism-Collectivism Index (higher values = more individualistic, lower values = more collectivistic) and Murray and Schaller’s (2010) historical disease prevalence index. Source: Bennett & Nikolaev (2019).

PSTV & Economic Consequences

While the development of collectivist (or individualist) cultural values is not an inherently bad thing a priori, a growing body of research utilizes the PSTV to link infectious disease prevalence to negative economic outcomes via the channel of cultural values development. One study, for instance, found that countries with higher historical disease prevalence are today less economically developed. Others suggest that countries with higher historical disease prevalence are less democratic and have less economic freedom. High disease prevalence has also been linked to higher levels of economic inequality and greater deforestation.

In a recent study I co-authored with Boris Nikolaev, we found that countries with high levels of disease prevalence are today less innovative. Figure 2 shows the strong negative relationship between disease prevalence and innovation. Our theory and empirical evidence suggest that countries with historically low levels of disease pathogens are more innovative today (in part) because they developed—as an evolutionary response to minimize pathogenic contagions—individualistic cultural values that better incentivized innovation than collectivistic cultural values.

Figure 2: Plots relationship between historical disease prevalence index and Innovation Output score from the Global Innovation Index. Source: Bennett & Nikolaev (2019).

PSTV research suggests that as the coronavirus continues to spread, we should be concerned that it will be accompanied by a wave of prejudice against (and injustice toward) Chinese people (and Asians more generally). We should also be concerned that such prejudices will become culturally transmitted over time, resulting in less mutually beneficial economic and social interactions with the global Chinese community. This could hinder the future of liberal democratic capitalism and reduce human flourishing around the world.


  • Daniel L. Bennett is a Research Professor with the Baugh Center for Entrepreneurship & Free Enterprise at Baylor University.