Collaborative Research: Grounding the Behavioral Immune System in Mental and Physiological Processes

Grants and Contracts Details


Summary Description: Disease-causing pathogens are widespread and potentially devastating in their consequences. Thus, effective disease management is one of the most fundamental challenges that people face. Recent research indicates that people rely not only on a physiological immune system that helps eliminate pathogens after infection occurs, but also on a behavioral immune system that reduces the possibility of initially contracting pathogens (see Schaller, 2011, for a review). This behavioral immune system is evidenced in a wide variety of interpersonal actions, including prejudicial attitudes, attentional biases, and social avoidance. The studies in this proposal will examine the behavioral immune system in depth, and link its action to multiple aspects of physiological and psychological functioning. We integrate research from social cognition, immunology, intergroup processing, and evolutionary psychology to test three broad hypotheses: (1) Behavioral immune responses to disease threat are complemented by anticipatory physiological immune responses (2) Behavioral immune system activation is mediated by those physiological responses and by specific implicit cognitions, and (3) The behavioral immune system can be down-regulated by manipulating those implicit cognitions. Intellectual Merit: The proposed research is aimed at developing and testing a novel theoretical model about the relationship between behavioral and physiological functioning. The results of these studies will have an important impact on theoretical and empirical work in social psychology, cognitive science, and other related domains of study. On the social psychological front, this work will deepen our theoretical understanding of how cognitive and behavioral reactions to disease-related cues are grounded in human biology, and the mechanisms by which these reactions function. Within the fields of psychophysiology and immunology, the proposed research will demonstrate how behavior plays a vital role in effective pathogen-threat management, and how this behavioral system provides not simply front-line defense that occurs prior to physiological responses, but is in fact fully integrated and acting concurrently with the physiological system. The proposed research will also advance current evolutionary models of disease processing that are quite broad in scope, but lack a deep connection to underlying intrapersonal mechanisms. Thus, this research has the potential to make a strong impact on several diverse fields of study and on outcomes of particular interest to social psychology, including stereotyping and prejudice, implicit cognition, interpersonal interaction, and evolutionary explanations of behavior. The proposed research is therefore interdisciplinary in nature, and will foster synergistic connections between research in domains that historically have had relatively little contact but are increasingly being integrated (e.g., psychophysiology and prejudice). In sum, this research will advance basic knowledge and theory pertaining to the ways in which the human mind and body evolved to overcome reoccurring health challenges associated with living in a social world. Broader Impact: The research in this proposal integrates approaches to cognitive science and psychophysiology with theories and methods from social psychology and decision-making science. The work will therefore incorporate ideas from, and be disseminated to, a wide scientific community, including researchers from psychology, biology, anthropology, and medical sciences. This interdisciplinary proposal has important applied as well as conceptual implications. Our studies on behavioral immune down-regulation directly inform potential interventions within interpersonal and intergroup contexts, and thus have strong societal relevance for issues faced by stigmatized groups. Although focused on extending basic research, these studies may have implications for programs that might involve training in alleviation and suppression of negative behavioral outcomes. Additionally, the execution of the proposed research will involve training for both graduate and undergraduate students from groups underrepresented in science careers. Participants in this research will also be drawn from a diversity of backgrounds, including students (both science and non-science majors) as well as non-student community members. Thus, the proposed research will contribute to both the scientific and educational missions of NSF.
Effective start/end date10/1/122/28/13


  • National Science Foundation: $54,103.00


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