Social Distancing From Foreign Individuals as a Disease-Avoidance Mechanism: Testing the Assumptions of the Behavioral Immune System Theory During the COVID-19 Pandemic


  • Aleksandra Szymkow Orcid
  • Natalia Frankowska
  • Katarzyna Gałasińska


Topics of prejudice, discrimination, and negative attitudes toward outgroups have attracted much attention of social scientists during the COVID-19 pandemic, as the preference for social distancing can originate from the perception of threat. One of the theoretical approaches that offers an explanation for avoidance tendencies is the behavioral immune system theory. As a motivational system that aims to identify and avoid pathogens, the behavioral immune system has been shown to be triggered by various cues of a potential disease threat (e.g., the risk of contracting a virus), which further leads to negative social consequences such as xenophobia, negative attitudes toward various social groups, and distancing tendencies. We present a correlational study (N = 588; Polish sample) that was designed to test mediational models derived from the behavioral immune system theory, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a source of natural disease threat. In serial mediation analyses we show that the perceived threat of COVID-19 translates into greater preferred social distance from foreign individuals, and that this occurs in two ways: 1) via pathogen disgust (but not sexual or moral disgust), and 2) via germ aversion (but not perceived infectability). Both pathogen disgust and germ aversion further predict general feelings toward foreign individuals, which finally determine the preferred social distance from these individuals. The results support the behavioral immune system theory as an important concept for understanding social distancing tendencies.