Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 24, 2016

Do Infectious Diseases Dampen Innovation?

by Annie Drinkard
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By Annie Drinkard

Just as the body has a biological immune system to help protect itself from illness and disease, psychologists have identified a “behavioral immune system” [i] that plays a complementary role. The term refers to the psychological predispositions, like our aversion to noxious smells and tastes that ensure that we minimize our exposure to things in our environment that could make us sick.

These preventive behaviors, from avoiding others who are ill or engaging in hand washing, may impact more than just our health.  These biologically based avoidance mechanisms may carry over into the political and economic realms by dampening innovation.

In a series of talks at the 2016 Society for Personality and Social Psychology Annual Convention, social and personality psychologists discussed how the threat of disease can dampen our willingness to take risks. This lack of risk taking has implications for economics, innovation, and even authoritarian governments.

The researchers acknowledge that some of their studies are correlational in nature, but it sparks a lot of ideas for understanding how our biological protection mechanisms influence our behaviors on both small and large scales.

Dr. Damian Murray, from Tulane University, notes the many historical cultural examples of disease-inhibiting practices, from houses built to reduce exposure to parasites to food taboos and the use of spices, all of which—often unknowingly—mitigate the spread of infectious diseases. 

In recent research, Dr. Murray has found relationships between conformity, disease prevalence and authoritarian regimes.  At both the individual and cultural levels of analysis, his research shows that higher disease threat predicts higher conformity. Murray says one of the broader downstream consequences of this higher conformity is lower innovation. His work has shown that innovation is lower in areas with higher diseases prevalence, and that this relationship is partially mediated by variation in conformity.

The disease–innovation correlation holds true for Stony Brook University’s Dr. Julie Huang’s research too.  Comparing data on disease in US states from 2009-2013, with U.S. Trade and Patent Office data, Huang found fewer patent applications in high disease areas.

Is there a way to dampen these effects? Marjorie Prokosch, Texas Christian University, found that mitigating disease risk, by committing prophylactic acts such as hand washing, helped counteract the decrease in risk taking that was seen in response to disease threats.

In her study undergraduate participants were primed with the threat of a diseases or a control prime about the threat of academic failure. She then examined how likely they were to take risks. Her research showed people were less likely to take risks when primed with disease threat. 

Yet when you allowed people to wash their hands after reading the two scenarios, they saw an increased willingness to take a risks compared to those who were originally presented with the disease scenario, but who were not given a chance to mitigate the disease threat.

The talks show that our biological and behavioral immune systems are tied together. The two systems are a complicated matrix that impact not only our personal actions, but could also impact innovation.

[i] Schaller, Mark (June 14, 2011). The “Behavioral Immune System,” Scientific American, Retrieved February 23, 2016 from:


Psychological Mechanisms for Managing the Risk of Infectious Disease took place January 30, 2016 at the 17th Annual Society for Personality and Social Psychology Convention. Joshua, Ackerman, Chair:

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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