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Evolved Disease-Avoidance Processes and
Implicit Antipathy Toward the Elderly
Lesley A. Duncan and Mark Schaller
University of British Columbia
Anomalous facial features can automatically elicit aversive
reactions from perceivers. These reactions may be the result,
in part, of evolved disease avoidance mechanisms that (a)
are sensitive to cues (such as deviations from morphological
prototypes) indicating the possible presence of parasites in
other people, and (b) automatically activate aversive
cognitions when such cues are perceived. In addition, an
evolutionary cost/benefit analysis implies that these
mechanisms are likely to be functionally flexible: They are
especially likely to be triggered when perceivers feel
especially vulnerable to infection themselves (Schaller &
Duncan, 2007).
The present research investigates whether visible signs
of aging (e.g. wrinkles) activate these disease-avoidance
mechanisms, thus contributing to implicit negative responses
to elderly people. We assessed implicit cognitive associations
linking elderly people to semantic concepts connoting disease
and other unpleasant things. And we tested the extent to
which these implicit negative associations are affected by
chronic concerns about germ transmission, and by the
temporary salience of germs.
Regression analyses tested the extent to which the
individual difference measures and the germ-salience
manipulation influenced implicit cognitive associations. No
meaningful effects emerged on the IAT task that focused
specifically on "disease," but several effects emerged on
implicit associations linking old people to more generally
"unpleasant" concepts. This implicit antipathy toward old
people was stronger among individuals who scored more
highly on Perceived Vulnerability to Disease (beta = .31, p =
.021), and was also stronger among people with a greater
Disgust Sensitivity (beta = .26, p =.051). There also was a
trend (p = .098) toward an interaction between Disgust
Sensitivity and the experimental manipulation of germ
salience. This interaction is depicted in Figure 2.
Individual Difference Measures: 55 university students
completed two questionnaire measures relevant to chronic
concerns with germ transmission and contagion: Perceived
Vulnerability to Disease and Disgust Sensitivity.
Manipulation of Temporary Germ Salience: Participants
viewed one of two brief slide show presentations. One slide
show depicted the threat posed by germs and infectious
diseases. The other depicted disease-irrelevant threats to
well-being (e.g., electrocution, and other kinds of accidents).
Implicit Association Tasks (IATs): Participants
performed two different computer-based reaction-time tasks.
One IAT assessed the extent to which old people (in
comparison to young people) were implicitly associated with
the semantic concept "unpleasant." The other IAT assessed
the extent to which old people (vs. young people) were
implicitly associated with the more specific semantic concept
"disease." Participants were presented serially with target
words that were either pleasant or unpleasant (or that either
connoted disease or health) and with photographs of either
young faces or old faces (Levy & Banaji, 2002). Participants
responded to each stimulus word by categorizing it as either
"pleasant" or "unpleasant" (or as connoting either "disease"
or "health"), and they responded to each photograph as
depicting either "young" or "old". On one critical block of
trials (Figure 1), the category "old" shared a response key
with the category "unpleasant" (or "disease"); on another
critical block of trials, "young" shared a response key with
"unpleasant" (or "disease“).
OLD or
Note: In this trial, “Old” and “Unpleasant”
shared the same response key.
Overall IAT indices were computed (in the manner
prescribed by Greenwald et al., 2003) that compared
response times on the two critical blocks of trials. More
highly positive values on these IAT indices indicate the
activation of implicit cognitive associations in which old
people (compared to young people) are more strongly
linked with the concepts "unpleasant" and "disease."
Figure 2. Interaction between Disgust
Sensitivity and Temporary Germ Salience
IAT Score (Unpleasant)
Figure 1. A Trial in the Old-Unpleasant IAT Task
Accidents Salient
Germs Salient
Linear (Germs Salient)
Linear (Accidents
These results provide preliminary evidence that
evolved disease-avoidance processes may contribute to
ageist attitudes. Implicit antipathy toward old people was
stronger among people who are chronically more worried
about contagion. Plus (although the interaction was not
quite statistically significant) the results suggested that even
people who aren't chronically worried about contagion may
also sometimes show greater antipathy toward old people –
if the threat of disease is made temporarily salient.
It is interesting that that these effects emerged only
on the implicit measure of general antipathy, but not the
measure that focused specifically on disease-connoting
cognition. Why would this be? One possibility is that the
observed effects may not implicate a disease-avoidance
mechanism after all. But if so, it's not clear why feelings of
vulnerability to disease specifically produced the results that
were observed. Another possibility is this: A more generally
aversive set of cognitions may often be activated by
disease-connoting cues because negative cognitions in
general (even those that seem irrelevant to the immediate
functional context) may still compel the adaptive behavioral
response: Avoidance.
Greenwald, A. G., Nosek, B. A., & Banaji, M. (2003). Understanding and
using the implicit association test: I. An improved scoring algorithm. Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 197–216.
Levy, B., & Banaji, M. R. (2002). Implicit ageism. In T. Nelson (Ed.),
Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons (pp. 49-75).
Cambridge: MIT Press.
Sensitivity to Disgust
Schaller, M., & Duncan, L. A. (2007). The behavioral immune system: Its
evolution and social psychological implications. In J. P. Forgas, M. G.
Haselton, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), Evolution and the social mind:
Evolutionary psychology and social cognition (pp. 293-307). New York:
Psychology Press.