UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The implications of disease threat for attitudes, behavior, and culture Murray, Damian


Disease threat has posed one of the greatest threats to human survival throughout history. However, only recently has research begun to elucidate humans’ psychological, behavioral, and cultural adaptations to the threat posed by infectious disease. Across a set of empirical studies using both individuals and cultures as units of analysis, this thesis investigates the implications of disease threat for attitudes, behavior, and cultural value systems. Chapter Two reports results from an experiment which show that perceived threat of disease is linked to more sexually restrictive attitudes across three measures. These results emerged most clearly for women. Chapter Three reports results from an experiment which show that temporary disease salience leads to relatively higher behavioral and attitudinal conformity (across four diverse measures). Further analyses show that dispositional worry about disease transmission is also positively associated with conformity. Chapter Four introduces a tool—an historical disease index—for investigating the origins of cross-cultural differences. Analyses reveal that this historical disease index is a better predictor of cross-cultural differences than are contemporary measures of disease. Chapter Five reports two studies which investigate the relationship between regional variation in disease prevalence and cross-cultural variation in authoritarianism. Results from Study 1 show that country-level mean authoritarian personality scores largely mediate the previously-documented relationship between pathogen prevalence and institutional authoritarianism. Using a sample of traditional societies (from the Standard Cross-Cultural sample), results from Study 2 reveal a link between historical pathogen prevalence and twelve measures of authoritarian governance. These relationships cannot be accounted for by controlling for other threats to human welfare. Chapter Six reports results from a cross-national analysis showing that historical disease prevalence positively predicts five measures of scientific and technological innovation. This relationship cannot be accounted for by variation in wealth, education, or life expectancy. Further analyses reveal that this relationship is largely mediated by cross-national variation in individualism and collectivism. Chapter Seven considers the possible causal mechanisms by which disease influences these individual and cultural differences, and considers the implications of this set of results.

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