We are what we are, so we have to work harder

Text/Gao Leke

We have been under the shadow of the epidemic for three years, and now we can finally see the sun, but we know that this cannot be done overnight, especially the psychological construction, which is a long process. Solving the problem requires us to find the root cause.

A few days ago, by chance, I listened to a program on the Ideal app called “To the Unique You: 40 Lectures on Personality Psychology” by Professor Wang Fang. She is a professor and doctoral supervisor of the Department of Psychology, Beijing Normal University, and her research field is personality and social psychology. Professor Wang Fang popularized the professional knowledge of personality psychology with gentle tone of voice, appropriate rhythm and touching words, and conveyed it to the public movingly, which benefited me a lot.

One of the episodes looks at the impact of the epidemic on humans from a psychological perspective, titled “How does the plague affect people and culture? | Behavioral immune system”. As a shallow learner like me, after listening to this episode, I was salvaged from a blind, narrow, and angry cognition. When using science to explain human behavior in the epidemic, the depressed mood of not being able to stop the car was resolved a lot.

Therefore, I really want to share the essence and thoughts of this episode here, so I can review and sort it out; I also remind myself that this is the power of science and knowledge, which acts on the brain and opens the heart. Just like Liang Wendao’s opening line in the “Eight Points” program: success is not guaranteed, and it is not necessarily useful. Knowledge is just a light that lights up the world.

01. Human behavior patterns under the plague

From a psychological point of view, how is this new crown different from previous large-scale infectious diseases? Professor Wang Fang believes that, apart from the fact that the degree of globalization, Internet popularization and technological empowerment are not the same, if we only look at the overall social psychological performance after the epidemic, there is not much difference in essence. In other words, human behavior and psychological characteristics are not particularly different from previous large-scale infectious diseases in the context of the new crown. On this point, as early as thirty years ago, some experts made a summary.

At that time, Philip Strong, the founder of sociology research on infectious diseases, summarized people’s psychological reactions after the occurrence of many new infectious diseases in history, found that the patterns were very similar, and wrote an article “An Epidemic Psychology “Model”, which explains that when a new infectious disease occurs every time, human beings respond in a regular manner, and there will basically be the following three stages:

The first is fear, fear, and worry about life safety; then there is anxiety, distrust, doubts about the world, and conspiracy theories; then there is a search for explanations, but it is not to fully understand the reasons, but to socialize the disease based on moral judgment Or moralization, such as: after the spread of AIDS, homosexuals are regarded as scourges and stigmatized, or like this new crown, people complain and hostile to those who are believed to have spread the virus. The last thing is to take action, whether it is useful or not, something must be done to declare war on the virus.

It can be said to be a running virus, iron-clad human behavior, as long as a new virus spreads, the above process will continue to repeat. In this sense, we humans can learn very little from these disasters.

So, this gave me a thought: The alienation, accusation and even hostility towards others that gradually emerged during the epidemic prevention process, the nationals whose livelihood was cut off due to the epidemic prevention, and even the personal rights and lives that were violated, are actually these reactions There are bound to be problems in the chain. On the one hand, we do not want these dilemmas to arise, but on the other hand, it seems hopeless to improve the above-mentioned human behavior patterns, because this is an instinctive behavior mechanism and group strategy that humans have evolved to survive. The truth, then, is frustrating—we can never stop bad things from happening. Not only that, but bad things are magnified when aided by demagoguery, slogans and deception.

This made me see that even in modern civilization, there are reasons for the subtlety of human nature and out-of-control behaviors. I don’t need to be too entangled in “why everyone is like this” to make myself feel uncomfortable.

But, don’t stop here. I realized more deeply: Isn’t the reason why people are human is to use humanistic care and moral spirit to fight against instinct? Just have to admit, it takes extra effort.

02. Stimulation of behavior patterns

So, tracing back to the source, what inspired this behavior pattern of human beings under the epidemic?

We are all familiar with the physiological immune system of the human body. Our bodies and their functions have been constructed by natural evolution and historical battles against various germs. This complex and sophisticated physiological immune system, from skin barriers to internal immune cells, helps us survive in a world full of germs. However, we also all know that the body’s immune system is far from perfect and omnipotent. It has weaknesses and fails to defend against foreign enemies; when it works, there will be losses, and sometimes it will even attack itself, and so on.

Here, we can introduce the concept called “behavioral immune system” by psychologists. It evolved to make up for the shortcomings of the physiological immune system. It is only reflected in human behavior. It is an active defense, including a series of psychological mechanisms. The task is to sense threatening cues in the environment and then avoid engaging with them by changing cognition, emotion, and behavior.

The imperfection of the physiological immune system lies in the inability to detect pathogens before they invade in time. As a result, the behavioral immune system begins to play a compensatory role: for invisible pathogens, it looks for clues to snipe them out of the body in advance. What is a clue? That is, the characteristics exhibited by others.

Many germs are transmitted from person to person, so it becomes natural to be wary of those who are unanimously identified as infected and potential infected. Various symptoms shown by people around us – coughing, sneezing, skin diseases, pustules, unknown secretions, etc., induce our instinctive resistance and stay away – the “disgusting” emotion is emitted.

The clues don’t stop there. If you cross the distance, the clues will diverge from the people around you to a distance far away from you. As a result, a behavior we are all too familiar with happened—avoiding people from places with high incidence of diseases. At this time, the original place of origin becomes the original sin. Even if the person’s own health is not infected, he will definitely become an unwelcome object. In addition to regional cues, there are various undesirable physical traits: obesity, disability, advanced age, etc. Even if these characteristics are not contagious, people will be judged as “susceptible characteristics” and continue to avoid them.

Driven by the behavioral immune system, have you seen a familiar and frustrating scene? Distrust of others and discrimination against certain individuals, innocent or not. The cost of inadvertently infecting others due to equal treatment and contact is greater than avoiding them. It is more appropriate to describe it as “would rather kill than let go”.

The behavior pattern of self-defense through “cues” does not end here, and sometimes specific individuals do not show the above-mentioned visible signs. At this time, the vigilance of the individual begins to generalize to the group, and it is believed that a certain group is more likely to carry the germ—strangers, people from outgroups, people of other races, and so on. It sounds like this kind of inhumane behavior is not acceptable, but in order to protect oneself, human beings indifference and isolation of foreign groups are produced in this way. It is almost instinctive, and this has indeed been verified by history. Historically, contact with foreign peoples will increase the risk of exposure to pathogens, and foreign pathogens invaded for the first time and are highly toxic. The smallpox brought by the Spaniards in the 16th century killed more than half of the population of the American continent. Good example.

Plague is an ecological pressure that to some extent shapes people’s specific psychological and behavioral patterns.

03. Social manifestations of the behavioral immune system

After the behavioral immune system is activated according to the above path, what impact will it have on the social level?

The first is exclusion. Disgust and avoidance of strangers and outgroups, behaviors manifested as: exclusion of outgroups, nationalism, ethnocentrism. In the case of the new crown, incidents of Asians being discriminated against around the world have occurred from time to time, which is a proof.

Then there’s the interior. The opposite of xenophobia is a preference for ingroups. In the same in-group, everyone shares the rules, relies on each other, helps each other, and has a strong sense of security. Through certain customary ritualized behaviors, diseases can be controlled to a certain extent. Cooperation has brought about a reduction in the risk of infection. Then, the behavior is externalized as: members of the inner group share the same hatred, are closely united, have high loyalty, and show a high tendency to collectivism. At the same time, people will obey social norms and authority more than before, and are willing to sacrifice part of their rights and freedoms to achieve a higher degree of consistency. There are countless examples under the new crown, such as obeying the call to wear masks, cooperating with home isolation, maintaining social distance, and so on. Anyone who breaks the rules will be reprimanded or even punished.

Therefore, the activation of the behavioral immune system will make us more repulsive to the outside, more conformist to the inside and condemn violators. And between different groups, conflicts will become more prominent.

04. Behavioral immune system, good or bad?

Activation of the behavioral immune system is a gut reaction, without thought and adjustment, and it is beyond reproach from the evolutionary standpoint of human self-protection. But judging from its social impact, it is undoubtedly not what we want to see. However, it always leads us to unsatisfactory situations without exception, why? This starts with two principles of how the behavioral immune system operates.

One is the “smoke alarm” principle. A smoke alarm is a good metaphor. It is used to prevent fire, but a little smoke can trigger it. Still, as mentioned above, “it is better to kill by mistake than to let go” is at work. Missing a report is more expensive than a wrong report. Like a smoke alarm, the behavioral immune system exhibits an overly sensitive alarm response—a cough is enough to avoid it. Therefore, this kind of reaction that causes innocent people to be treated unfairly lacks civilization, humanity and care.

The second is the principle of “functional flexibility”. Once the behavioral immune system is activated, there will be costs if it is constantly under surveillance. Under the new crown, these costs are particularly representative: cancellation of social networking, blocking of out-of-group groups, suspension of business exchanges, decline in economic vitality, and so on. To avoid unnecessary energy expenditure, the behavioral immune system has evolved functional flexibility, able to adjust the intensity of the immune response according to the plague situation. When the external cue suggests less danger, the response becomes weaker, and vice versa.

This reminds us that when the epidemic subsides, the response of the behavioral immune system weakens, and when the epidemic rebounds, everything comes back. — it’s really endless, a mixture of good and bad, we can’t abandon it, but we can’t be completely driven by it. Many times we feel entangled, sad, and unacceptable about the estrangement in the world, but this is subjective and emotional; scientifically explained, it is so objective and ruthless.

05. Epidemics, Behavioral Immune Systems, and Cultural Differences

When a region or a group is always at risk of disease infection, and the behavioral immune system remains activated for a long time, will it allow them to slowly evolve a set of stable psychological and behavioral patterns, thereby forming a corresponding culture? This is an interesting question.

Culture, by its abstract nature, is a model that is imposed on each member of the ingroup. What is the effect of everyone sharing the same or similar culture? One is to be able to quickly adapt to this society, the other is to find identity and a sense of belonging, and the third is that new members from outside can directly pack and learn and absorb new members, which is the most efficient.

Here, the “pathogen prevalence hypothesis” comes into play, which is one of the representative hypotheses explaining how cultural differences form. The hypothesis holds that historically high prevalence of pathogens will generate cultures adapted to the characteristics of this ecological environment. After research, they are indeed related. Historically, areas with higher prevalence of pathogens have lower levels of individualism and higher levels of collectivism, showing the social behaviors we talked about above-inner attachment, conformity and loyalty, emphasizing the importance of tradition, Be careful with outsiders. Like a tight hug.

This behavioral state of tightly clinging to each other is culturally defined as “tightening culture”. Members adhere strictly to social norms, have a low tolerance for anomie, and value cooperation and respect for one another’s rules, as this helps members defend against threats and save lives. In the real world, all of East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South America, areas with historically high prevalence of pathogens, have more austere cultures overall.

The opposite of the tight culture is the “loose culture”, which shows the opposite characteristics, and the difference is formed from this.

Let us summarize this chain: Epidemics will induce the almost instinctive behavioral immune system of human beings. When epidemics occur frequently, the behavioral immune system will be in a state of long-term operation, bringing about a relatively fixed behavior pattern, and then forming a culture with its own characteristics . Cultural differences emerge.

So can this chain be reversed? After cultural differences are formed, will they be affected back? Will do. If there is a new plague, different cultures will develop different coping strategies and show corresponding behavior patterns. Take this new crown as an example. In countries and regions with strong collectivism and austerity culture, the people will show higher efficiency and be more willing to cooperate and follow the government’s call, such as us. Our ancestors have gone through hardships and suffered crimes, and we have also shown corresponding behaviors under their gradually formed culture. Not only domestic people, but Chinese people all over the world are relatively vigilant.

The United States, then, is a typical loose culture, which does not forget individualism when the plague strikes. They have historically experienced relatively low disaster threats and have been more blunt in responding to epidemics.

The above is the general content of the arrangement. We can see that the ecological pressure that began with the epidemic has forced human beings to adopt self-interested survival strategies-no matter what morality and civilization, the first thing to do is to survive. This is an instinct and irresistible. From this perspective, in the context of the epidemic, it is inevitable and irresolvable that hostility will arise between different groups of human beings. So, understanding the reasons for disappointment with human behavior helps us open a window instead of being stuck in a rut.

As the fight against the epidemic continues to advance, the defensive behaviors caused by the behavioral immune system are becoming more and more extreme. Remember, this immune system itself is overly sensitive and uncorrected, and if left unchecked, the situation will only become more ugly and inhuman. Fortunately, after all, we still have a brain of “the reason why we are human”, and we will feel wrong about these difficulties and discomforts, and want to improve and make this world a better place. We are all a community of destiny, you and I share the same fate.

Professor Wang Fang finally said: “The only thing that is certain is that the struggle between humans and viruses will not see an end in the foreseeable future, and everything humans have experienced for thousands of years has repeatedly proved that no plague can be predicted. The only thing humans can control and manage is ourselves. The storm will eventually pass, and we are just passers-by on this virus planet. At this moment, the tension is nothing more than a speck of dust in the majestic universe. Treating each other with awe and kindness seems to be the only home to protect us. The only way. Bless the earth, bless mankind.”

Because we are like this, we must work harder.

Zuo An Ji: Humans have evolved various defense mechanisms to better protect themselves, but in the process of extreme protection, it will always be counterproductive, because there are always special situations in real life. This is not a problem of “tram difficulty”, but that there is a way to stop the “tram” without hurting each other. This is also the most desirable aspect of social progress. What we have to do is to make ourselves more humane after understanding this psychology. To be kind to others is to be kind to yourself.

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