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Effects of disease salience and xenophobia on support for humanitarian aid

  • Johnathan C. Peterson (a1), Frank J. Gonzalez (a2) and Stephen P. Schneider (a3)

This article examines how disease salience influences attitudes toward two types of humanitarian aid: sending foreign aid and housing refugees. Some have argued that disease salience increases levels of out-group prejudice through what is referred to as the behavioral immune system (BIS), and this increase in out-group prejudice works to shape policy attitudes. However, an alternative mechanism that may explain the effects of disease salience is contamination fear, which would suggest there is no group bias in the effects of disease threat. Existing work largely interprets opposition to policies that assist out-groups as evidence of out-group prejudice. We suggest it is necessary to separate measures of out-group animosity from opinions toward specific policies to determine whether increased out-group prejudice rather than fear of contamination is the mechanism by which disease salience impacts policy attitudes. Across two experiments, disease salience is shown to significantly decrease support for humanitarian aid, but only in the form of refugee support. Furthermore, there is converging evidence to suggest that any influence of disease salience on aid attitudes is not caused by a corresponding increase in xenophobia. We suggest that the mechanism by which disease threat influences policy attitudes is a general fear of contamination rather than xenophobia. These findings go against an important hypothesized mechanism of the BIS and have critical implications for the relationship between disease salience and attitudes toward transnational policies involving humanitarian aid.

Corresponding author
Correspondence: Frank J. Gonzalez, School of Government and Public Policy, University of Arizona, Social Sciences Building, 1145 E. South Campus Dr., Tucson, AZ 85719. Email:
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Politics and the Life Sciences
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