A time of crisis can exacerbate our social prejudices, particularly bigotry and xenophobia. A study, published in the journal Proceedings of The Royal Society, explored the association between infectious diseases and social behavior in animals, including non-humans. The study found that when faced with a pathogen, virus, or parasite spread, humans and other animals tend to seek protection with their family and peers. They tend to close rank against outsiders.
The risk of pathogen or disease spread is one of the costs of living in a community. Hence, it can also drive social behavior and the evolution of a group. With the rise in risks of infectious diseases, the social structure could mean the difference between extinction and survival. The study explored social behavior among humans and wildlife when faced with infectious diseases. The changes in behavior were compared to theoretical expectations.
They found that animals tended to stick together when faced with a threat. For instance, garden ants clustered in small groups when exposed to a fungus. These groups were smaller than the researchers had predicted and effectively limited the spread of disease. Similar behavior was seen in 19 non-human primate species. This pattern lowered the direct spread of an infectious disease.
While humans also display a similar tendency to separate into smaller groups, they also show a set of behavior which can become discriminatory in nature. While there was an increase in group cohesion and altruism, people also avoided those who were seen to pose risks. Increased insularity can lead to xenophobic responses. Social isolation could also pose emotional, physical, and behavioral costs. The rise in xenophobia and bigotry harm efforts in finding solutions for prevention and treatment.