Evolutionary Psychological Science

, Volume 5, Issue 3, pp 343–356 | Cite as

Is the Cure a Wall? Behavioral Immune System Responses to a Disease Metaphor for Immigration

  • Mitch BrownEmail author
  • Lucas A. Keefer
  • Donald F. Sacco
  • Aaron Bermond
Research Article


Humans have evolved a capability to identify and subsequently avoid communicable pathogens. The current research tested whether activation of this system can be co-opted by disease metaphors, which frame abstract social issues as concrete disease risks. We predicted that language framing immigration as a disease would elicit heightened anti-immigration attitudes and greater support for restrictive social policies (study 1), tested whether this effect was moderated by pathogen concern (study 2), and compared aversion to disease metaphors with concerns of literal disease (study 3). We identified conditions under which the disease framing generally produced more anti-immigrant attitudes, particularly among individuals with stronger chronic disease concerns. Furthermore, we also identified boundary conditions for such effects, such that disease metaphors demonstrated limited efficacy in the presence of a literal disease threat. We explain these results at the intersection of evolutionary and conceptual metaphor theories.


Evolutionary psychology Language Immigration Metaphor Disease 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mitch Brown
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lucas A. Keefer
    • 1
  • Donald F. Sacco
    • 1
  • Aaron Bermond
    • 1
  1. 1.School of PsychologyThe University of Southern MississippiHattiesburgUSA

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