Can we use ‘disgust’ to combat COVID-19?

Picture credits: The Brink

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV-2) which causes COVID-19 has completely changed the course of our lives. We are already experiencing the social and economic implications. What’s notable is that such implications are going to unfold more in the coming years. Evolutionary scientists are paying attention to many evolutionary insights that can help us better understand the pandemic and how it can be tackled. One such evolutionary insight is the use of ‘disgust’ emotion. 

Surprised? Confused? I mean what could possibly a single emotion called disgust help us craft solutions to the problems related to the pandemic. I believe it can. Evolutionary psychologists believe it can.

In recent years a great deal of psychological research has been conducted to study the emotion called disgust. Psychologists have found that disgust influences our social, political and moral judgements. People who are easily disgusted have different opinions in social, political and moral domains than people who are not so easily disgusted in their everyday lives. Evolutionary scientists propose that disgust is a ‘social protective system’ and tells a lot about how it continued to be a part of our evolutionary past. Disgust is a part of:

  1. Food psychology
  2. Sexual psychology 
  3. Physical contact psychology

When it comes to food psychology, the emotion protects us from ingesting food items that are rotten and full of toxins & pathogens. It had been helping our ancestors and it is helping us as well. When it comes to sexual psychology, disgust helps us to not get involved sexually with people (e.g. family members). Finally being a part of physical contact psychology, disgust makes sure we do not get in physical contact with surfaces displaying unknown bodily fluids, microbial infestation and people having some sort of visible infection.

When disgusting things are visible to the naked eye it is quite easy to stay away from them. For an example, if some food item is rotten and yet it is resting in our refrigerator we will immediately get rid of it because of the bad appearance and foul smell. However, that is not the case during the pandemic. A virus is not visible to a naked eye. And approximately 80% of the population stay asymptomatic while transmitting the virus at the same time. So when our closed relatives, friends and colleagues look perfectly well (even though they might be infected) we believe they are all well because a disgusting pathogen like SARS-CoV-2 is beyond our visibility. 

Psychologists believe we can use disgust to tackle the situation. But how? By showing images of people who are sick due to COVID-19 or images of the pathogen sitting on surfaces. This might trigger our ancient disgust system and people might start practicing physical distancing and and they might start wearing masks. It may sound unethical because it can be traumatic for some people. So it should be done with proper care. 

(This blog is inspired by one of the arguments presented in a paper titled “The pandemic exposes human nature: 10 evolutionary insights”).

Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

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Conspiracy theories are not a modern invention. They have been a part of human civilization for a very long time. There are conspiracy theories that revolve around 9/11, moon landing, Adolf Hitler, Nazism, etc. Some conspiracy theories assert that Hitler did not commit suicide but escaped and lived in secrecy until his death (god knows what year). Even Antisemitism is believed to be based upon a conspiracy theory: a cabal of financiers (Jews) were secretly plotting to dominate the whole world and destroy the Aryan race. It was only a matter of time that Hitler found out about it and took the necessary steps.

When the whole world is suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic conspiracy theories don’t seem to go anywhere. The most popular conspiracy theory during the pandemic is related to Bill Gates who is a Microsoft co-founder and a philanthropist. He had been accused of unleashing the virus so that he could make money while making a vaccine for it and then implant microchips into people to keep constant surveillance. The believers believed because how come he knew about a virus and not a war killing millions of people in the year 2015- five years prior to the pandemic.

Conspiracy theories might seem interesting but why such theories float among us all is a much more interesting question. Before jumping on to why we are so susceptible to misinformation it is critical to understand that there is a distinction between fiction and lies. Lies and fiction both play a role in conspiracy theories. Yuval Noah Harari who is one of my favorite thinkers believes there is a difference between lies and fiction. He believes lies are often spread intentionally to deceive people while fictional stories spread not with a malicious intent. They are passed on having best interests in our hearts. Fictions are actually needed so that we as a human race co-operate with one another. Take religion, for instance. Religion has no objective reality. It is only a fictional story. It is required so that we all live in unity. So, when people are spreading conspiracy theories they may not be lying about them. If they are passing them on it is important that they believe in them first. In the end they do believe.

Professor Harari believes human beings majorly are not very good when it comes to understanding complicated things like a virus. Making the efforts to understand the genetic code of a virus and how it replicates when it enters inside a living host seems quite daunting and difficult. So people prefer explanations that are easier to understand. Hence they believe in ridiculous theories. It is easier to understand that billionaires have started the pandemic than all the statistics and logical explanations scientists have been trying to put forth.

Human beings seek certainty. We are always questioning things happening around us and we eventually search for their answers. But when things get a little bit more uncertain we become very uncomfortable. As already mentioned that humans prefer easier explanations so, we go out & start finding comfort and conspiracy theories do just that.

Another reason why people fall prey to conspiracy theories is that human beings want security and a sense of control in their lives. When that security gets threatened and our comfort zone starts getting disrupted we turn to ideas that give back our lost sense of control and security. For instance if I don’t want my social life to come at halt during the pandemic and I want to keep socializing with people then false ideas generating ridiculous theories like ‘there is no such thing like COVID-19, it is a hoax’ will be taken seriously. It is because it’ telling me that I still have control over the things. And my security is still intact.

These are some of the reasons that shed light on why we have a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. Can we do something about it? Maybe we can. Professor Harari believes this is high time we put our good faith in science. Instead of taking in information from unreliable sources with no knowledge of viruses, pandemics, public health, etc. we need to shift to reliable sources offering scientific explanations. Do not believe what a self-proclaimed scientist is telling you!! Furthermore, scientists should convey information not merely using statistics and some very complicated graphs. Rather in form of stories. Humans love stories and when something is passed on in form of nicely constructed stories they believe in them.

Conspiracy theories have a potential to cause a lot of damage. Imagine how many Jews had to die during the World War 2 due to one person’s delusions and misinformation. It is important to understand that we must not dismiss conspiracy theories entirely. While it is ridiculous that Bill Gates started the pandemic to implant chips into people it is critical to ponder upon the issue of global surveillance that central authority figures are already performing.