Technological progress transfers to environmental change, and directly impacts society and human health. It can also result in global outbreaks of infectious diseases; indeed, the world is currently witnessing an outbreak of a novel coronavirus, SARS-COV-2, causing the COVID-19 disease. The virus originated in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019 [1
]. The COVID-19 pandemic has a number of global effects [5
], and countries all over the world are seeking ways to mitigate its negative consequences by implementing an integrated sustainable-development approach. The pandemic is catastrophic for sustainable development [7
] in all areas starting from the economy of each country, through decreased mobility and nonexistent tourism, and to the social aspects, including long-term health problems in those affected by the disease and losses of the loved ones. It is also likely that the COVID-19 outbreak has psychological consequences [8
], and it seems crucial to identify them to properly address these problems in addition to directly tackling the disease spread.
Negative attitudes toward foreign groups, i.e., prejudice, can be predicted by various factors, including history of conflict, current competition over limited resources, or lack of knowledge about a certain group [14
]. Prejudice relates to an affective component of attitudes and, along with stereotypes (cognitive components) and discrimination (behavioral component), describes barriers in intergroup relations [17
]. Although prejudice is often shared and maintained for years, it is not necessarily resistant to sudden events or acute environmental changes [18
], and we predict that the COVID-19 outbreak can be a significant enough factor to influence social attitudes toward outgroups.
According to behavioral-immunology theories [19
], human attitudes and behaviors are likely to be shaped by pathogen stress. Authoritarianism or conformism can be seen as elements of the antipathogen behavioral immune system, just as aversive behaviors and attitudes toward “outgroups” can, especially if these individuals are seen as unhealthy [21
]. In countries with low parasite stress, general openness to novelty (including foreigners) tends to be higher than in those with high parasite stress [22
]. Moreover, experimentally primed disease salience can not only boost conformism [20
], but also xenophobia and ethnocentrism [24
]. In the study of Faulkner and colleagues [24
], manipulation that involved the activation of thinking about disease in general elicited less favorable attitudes specifically toward unfamiliar (but not familiar) nationalities. However, another study [25
] provided evidence for a link between pathogen stress, and general ingroup favoritism and ethnocentrism. All these studies clearly suggested a link between evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms and discriminatory attitudes.
Except for China, the source of the COVID-19 disease was foreign in all countries. Therefore, we conducted two studies that addressed the psychological consequences of the current epidemiological situation in the context of intergroup relations. More specifically, we assessed whether the threat of SARS-CoV-2 affected prejudice toward different nationalities, as predicted by behavioral immunology. In correlational Study 1, we examined the relationship between media exposure and attitudes toward foreigners. In longitudinal Study 2, we tested whether the search for information about the pandemic predicted the level of prejudice. The present studies were preregistered, and materials used in both studies were placed at the project’s Open Science Framework (OSF) sites (see https://osf.io/3xyuj
for the first study and https://osf.io/9cjqx
for the second study). Access to our database is available via the following link: https://figshare.com/s/e52afd0bad96e47f0de6
. Study protocols were approved by the Ethics Committee at the Institute of Psychology, University of Wrocław.
2. Study 1
We based Study 1 on two subsamples, Poles and Britons, to achieve a greater extent of generalizability of our findings. We did not expect differences between them in terms of the main effects of interest. Rather, we assumed that effects found in both samples, British (well-represented in psychological research) and Polish (much less represented), would be more reliable. We examined whether media exposure (with most news currently being related to the COVID-19 outbreak) predicted the level of prejudice toward four nationalities (i.e., Chinese and Italian, representing one culturally close (and thus familiar) and one culturally distant (unfamiliar) nation, currently identified as those struggling with a massive outbreak of the virus, and Hungarian and Mongolian, representing one culturally close and one culturally distant nation not affected by the epidemic to such a great extent as of the date of the conduction of the studies). The choice of the target nations followed the findings of Faulkner et al. [24
] suggesting that the different effects of pathogen threat on countries depend on their (un)familiarity to the participants. China and Italy differentially vary from Britons and Poles by geographical location, predominant religion, and cultural norms [27
]. Mongolians and Hungarians were chosen as their COVID-19-unaffected counterparts.
2.1. Materials and Methods
The survey sample consisted of 410 participants (204 Poles aged between 18 and 66 years old (M = 38.80, SD = 11.91), 53% women, and 206 Britons aged between 18 and 76 years old (M = 39.87, SD = 12.94), 50% women). Participants were recruited through an external survey company. Respondents in such survey panels are typically very diverse groups, differing in age, education, residence, etc., but in this study, we did not control for the representativeness of the employed sample. All participants provided informed written consent to take part in the study, and were compensated for participation.
Subjects were invited to participate in two seemingly unrelated studies. In the first, they were presented with questions regarding the frequency of their mass-media attendance. Participants estimated how much time, on an average day, they spent on watching television, using the Internet, listening to the radio, browsing, and reading or listening to the news. We computed a single measure of news exposition (average mass-media-attendance time) and used it in all subsequent analyses.
In the second part of the study, we measured the participants’ attitudes toward four nationalities (i.e., Hungarian, Italian, Mongolian, and Chinese), presented in a random order. We used the Bogardus social-distance scale [30
], a measure commonly used to assess prejudice [32
] that consists of three questions (i.e., whether participants would mind if a member of a given group was their co-worker, neighbor, and a part of their family). Participants responded to each question on a seven-point Likert scale (ranging from 1 = definitely would not mind to 7 = definitely would mind). We averaged the scores across the three questions about a given nationality to obtain four single measures of social distance toward Hungarians, Italians, Mongolians, and the Chinese.
To examine possible differences in prejudice toward the four nationalities, we first conducted repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA), with participants’ country as a between-subject factor. We observed statistically significant differences in overall social distance, F (3, 1224) = 11.35, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.027, as well as the interaction of participants’ country x assessed nationality, F (3, 1224) = 9.8, p < 0.001, η2 = 0.022. More specifically, the declared social distance toward the Chinese (M = 2.66, SD = 1.88) was found to be higher (p < 0.001) than the distance toward Hungarians (M = 2.33, SD = 1.75) and Italians (M = 2.51, SD = 1.86, p = 0.015), but it did not significantly differ from the distance toward Mongolians (M = 2.62, SD = 1.88) (p = 0.50). The distance toward Italians was significantly higher than that toward Hungarians (p < 0.001). Poles and Britons did not differ in terms of their declared social distance (M = 2.49, SD = 1.64 and M = 2.57, SD = 1.72, respectively, F(1, 408) = 0.28, p = 0.60, η2 = 0.001).
Our main analysis examined if exposure to the media and more intense media attendance were related to the social distance to the four tested nationalities. Given that our dataset had a clustered structure (participants assessed the social distance toward four nationalities), we used multilevel regression. More specifically, the social distance toward others was regressed into participants’ media exposure and their country, controlling for participants’ sex and age. Additionally, to control for potential differences in the distance toward specific nationalities, the model included instrumental variables describing the nations toward which the social distance was measured (Mongolians served as a reference category). To facilitate interpretability, both continuous variables (media exposure and age) were included in the model in a standardized form, while dichotomous variables were introduced in a centered form. Therefore, in the case of media exposure and age, the reported coefficients might be interpreted as standardized regression coefficients (coefficients), while for the remaining variables, the coefficients might be interpreted as Cohen’s d, i.e., a standardized difference between two groups (Table 1
Consistent with our expectations, media exposure was positively correlated with social distance to foreigners (Figure 1
, left panel). Women were found to be less distanced than men were. We did not observe a statistically significant effect of the nation toward which the distance was measured; nor exploratorily tested and omitted here is the interaction of participants’ country (PL, UK) x nation (see Figure 1
, right panel).
4. General Discussion
Behavioral-immune-system theories [22
] suggest that a pathogen-related threat can translate into a willingness to also distance oneself from others on a psychological level [24
]. Building on this notion, we predicted that the ongoing pandemic of coronavirus can differentiate attitudes toward foreign nationalities. The correlational study in the UK and in Poland revealed that prejudice against foreign groups was positively related to media exposure, and thus to exposure to information about the coronavirus, regardless of the extent of COVID-19 outbreak in the assessed countries. These results were followed up with a short-term longitudinal study that showed that negative affect toward Italians (i.e., a nation struggling with the most severe COVID-19 outbreak at the time of the study) was indirectly predicted by exposure to news about coronavirus through the increase in anxiety. The fact that coronavirus-information exposure was not related to feelings about foreign groups other than Italians suggests that this effect may be of short duration and peak when the outreach of the pandemic in the given country is high and salient in media.
Our study had some limitations that should be addressed in further research. First, in Study 1, we did not know whether the relationship between media consumption and prejudice was indeed related to information about coronavirus, as these media and attitudes were already shown to be linked [39
]. This was, however, addressed in Study 2, in which we asked about explicitly receiving information about COVID-19. Second, although some data on initial levels of prejudice toward most of the target groups existed [40
], we had no data that allowed direct comparisons of prejudice before and during the crisis. Because of that, no direct conclusions about the increase of prejudice (especially toward Italians) could be made. Further, longitudinal research is needed in order to assess the durability of these effects. Large-scale longitudinal comparisons could shed some light on whether the attitudes will be back at the status quo after the pandemic. In order to be informative, these comparisons should also control for various factors that may simultaneously affect prejudice to COVID-19, for instance, diversity policy in a given country [41
]. We hope that future studies will deliver sufficient evidence that clarifies whether coronavirus-related attitude shifts are reversable or not.
In summary, the COVID-19 virus outbreak and the constant processing of information about it can certainly be perceived as highly arousing and eliciting anxiety [43
], thus influencing the level of any potential prejudice. We found initial evidence for the effect of the pandemic on prejudice, yet the observed effect should be further controlled in longitudinal studies. Although our findings should be treated with caution as they only partly support our hypothesis, and we have to keep in mind several methodological limitations, similar findings were reported with regard to psychological correlations of media exposure [9
], as well as to anxiety/fear [45
] and prejudice [46
] as an aftermath of COVID-19. While physical distancing from others [42
] is highly recommended during epidemics and could significantly slow down the speed of virus expansion [47
], the less favorable attitudes about foreign groups with which social distancing usually goes along [33
] can be dangerous and, in the long term, could increase discrimination and injustice.