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Behavioral Immune System Responses to Coronavirus: A Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory Explanation of Conformity, Warmth Toward Others and Attitudes Toward Lockdown

Bacon, A. M. & Corr, P. J. ORCID: 0000-0002-7618-0058 (2020). Behavioral Immune System Responses to Coronavirus: A Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory Explanation of Conformity, Warmth Toward Others and Attitudes Toward Lockdown. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, article number 566237. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.566237


Behavioral immune system (BIS) describes psychological mechanisms that detect cues to infectious pathogens in the immediate environment, trigger disease-relevant responses and facilitate behavioral avoidance/escape. BIS activation elicits a perceived vulnerability to disease (PVD) which can result in conformity with social norms. However, a response to superficial cues can result in aversive responses to people that pose no actual threat, leading to an aversion to unfamiliar others, and likelihood of prejudice. Pathogen-neutralizing behaviors, therefore, have implications for social interaction as well as illness behaviors and responses to health communications. In this study, we investigate how PVD influences conformity, attitudes to other people and to lockdown regulations through the lens of the Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory (RST). RST describes personality in terms of biologically-driven approach and avoidance motivations which support personal goals. Participants from the United Kingdom public (N = 605) completed an RST personality questionnaire and then read either (a) coronavirus morbidity-mortality statistics and current United Kingdom government lifestyle regulations, (b) just the regulations (as presented in most government publicity materials), or (c) no information at all. They all completed the Perceived Vulnerability to Disease scale to assess BIS-relevant Germ Aversion and Perceived Infectability, followed by questions measuring social conformity, warmth toward others and attitudes toward lockdown measures. Significantly lower PVD scores were observed in the no-information condition, with the other conditions showing no difference. In terms of RST, approach behaviors related to goal-drive persistence work alongside fear in explaining conformity to social norms. Reward related approach behaviors partially explained warmth toward others, indicating that social rewards gained through interaction continue to be strong drivers of behavior. We found no role for RST traits in attitudes toward lockdown. Overall, coronavirus-related behavior is not driven purely by fear, but also by social and/or protection goals regulated by approach motivation. This study presents new insights into public perceptions of coronavirus and government regulated lifestyle restrictions, helping to explain social behaviors in terms of biologically driven mechanisms. Such understanding is vital if we are to successfully motivate public behavior to constrain spread of the virus.

Publication Type: Article
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
SWORD Depositor:
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Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

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