Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Is There a Link Between Disease and Racism?

A study explores associations between infectious diseases and racial attitudes.

In a time when we might expect people to come together in unity, stories of racial animosity are increasingly common. The Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council currently receives almost 100 reports per day of hate crimes against Asian Americans on their website Stop AAPI Hate. Most of these crimes involve “verbal harassment” or “shunning” and are centered on the victim’s race/ethnicity or on their face masks (which, ironically, are worn to protect others).

Women are disproportionately targeted. Attacks most often take place in California (43%) and New York (19%), two states with large proportions of Asian Americans, and in grocery or retail stores. One person reports, “My elderly mom and grandma were threatened and cursed at with racial slurs then followed on foot to the grocery store and further verbally attacked until they locked themselves inside the dry cleaners owned by my cousin” (p. 2). Another person reports, “A guy came behind me, called out 'hey' as I turned around, he started spraying me with Lysol and calling me all sorts of names” (p. 3).

Sadly, such behavior is not unusual during a pandemic. According to the parasite-stress hypothesis, given that people have a tendency to associate difference with disease, the prevalence of infectious diseases should predict greater prejudice against outgroup members as people strive to avoid disease. O’Shea, Watson, Brown, and Fincher (2020) conducted two studies to test the parasite-stress hypothesis.

Study 1 used a sample of over 77,000 Americans who completed measures of racial prejudice the website Project Implicit. One measure they used was the Race Implicit Association Task (IAT), which examines reaction times of associations between Black and White faces and good and bad words. Explicit prejudice was assessed through the question, “Which statement best describes you?” (p. 347). Participants responded on a 1-7 scale in which 1 = “I strongly prefer African Americans to European Americans”, 4 = “I like European Americans and African Americans Equally”, and 7 = “I strongly prefer European Americans to African Americans” (p. 347).

Results indicated that both Blacks and Whites in states with more infectious diseases were higher in both implicit and explicit prejudice against outgroup members even after controlling for important personal attributes (political ideology, religion, gender, age, education) and state-level attributes (income, equality, population density, percent of U.S. citizens, exposure to Blacks vs Whites). In fact, the rate of infectious disease was the best state-level predictor of racism. The researchers note that they could not rule out the possibility that an untested variable explains the correlation between disease rate and prejudice.

In Study 2, the researchers conducted an experiment on Amazon Mechanical Turk in which 588 Whites were primed with disease, terror, or control images prior to completing measures of implicit and explicit prejudice. In the disease condition, participants were shown images of “mold, feces, and people with infections” (p. 350). Participants in the terror condition saw images of terrorist attacks and those in the control condition saw images of buildings and furniture.

Source: Oyehaha/Pixabay

Results indicated that individuals who were high in the trait of “germ-aversion” and were in the disease condition showed greater explicit but not implicit prejudice against Blacks.

Based on results, the researchers suggest that when infectious diseases are prevalent, contact with outgroup members may lead to more prejudice, a phenomenon termed “negative intergroup contact.” Their predictions map onto what we observe now. Areas with more Asian Americans seem to be experiencing a disproportionate number of Anti-Asian hate crimes. While the 2010 Census reports that 31% of Asian Americans live in California, 43% of reported hate crimes on Stop AAPI Hate took place in California.

To lessen such prejudice in these trying times, individuals should take an honest look at the potential sources of their attitudes and emotions before lashing out at those who look different. In addition, government officials should avoid encouraging prejudice with terms such as “Chinese virus.”


O’Shea, B. A., Watson, D. G., Brown, G. D., & Fincher, C. L. (2020). Infectious disease prevalence, not race exposure, predicts both implicit and explicit racial prejudice across the United States. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 11, 345-355. DOI: 10.1177/1948550619862319