A study of the behavioural immune system sheds light on India’s problematic attitudes towards migrants.
Why is it that India, despite its history as a country of immigrants, is no stranger to immigration controversies? Even before the recent spate of tragic deaths and mob lynchings because of WhatsApp messages, there have been warning signs of an increasingly xenophobic society.
Consider, for example, the 2012 “exodus” of northeastern citizens from Bengaluru, or the egregious violence against immigrants from north India in Mumbai in 2008. Community spirit does not seem to extend to citizens from other parts of the country.
In the past few weeks, WhatsApp messages circulated through groups and forwards, warning of kidnappers and child traffickers, have led to mobs attacking people who look like “outsiders” – usually people from the most marginalised parts of society, such as immigrant labourers or the homeless.
Data from the Lok Foundation Surveys, carried out by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy across over 72,000 households in 2014, sheds some light on this social behaviour of Indians. Respondents were asked whether they thought they had been discriminated against in the past year because of their state of origin. Overall, around 28 per cent Indians agreed. This number shot up to 35 per cent for poor respondents, and around 30 per cent of both OBCs and SC/STs claimed they had faced some discrimination. Middle class and rich Indians reported facing less discrimination based on their state of origin.
It seems that Indian attitudes towards immigrants are informed by their caste and economic status, as well as state of origin. While some of this could be due to prevalent social norms and mores, it is also possible that our brains may be wired to distrust them. When egged on by malicious forwards and mass hysteria, such attitudes can be lethal.
Pathogens and pariahs
People have a tendency to view members of their out-groups as less than human: we, sometimes, compare them to animals that are generally associated with disease transmission, such as cockroaches or other such parasites. For instance, Donald Trump has often compared immigrants to animals (such as snakes). This form of dehumanisation is usually an antecedent to more antagonistic actions toward them.
The behavioural immune system has evolved to detect pathogens in our environment. It pre-emptively enables us to avoid pathogens – the first line of defence before our physiological immune system acts up. One way it does so is by eliciting disgust, an emotion that is cross-culturally ubiquitous.
Disgust sensitivity is thought to have influenced political and other socio-moral beliefs. Disease vulnerability has also been linked to ethnocentric attitudes – that is, it increases attraction to in-group members and negativity towards out-group members. We may be hard-wired to avoid and distrust people who are not like us, for the simple reason that our brains tend to interpret them as being possible sources of infection.
Of course, our first reaction to seeing out-group members is not “They look infectious!” We are, instead, automatically responding to them based on their appearances. We look at crude, superficial cues, such as age or skin discolouration, to make what is essentially a prejudiced assumption that they may carry pathogens. All this happens at a subconscious level, stoking feelings of disgust, which, when amplified through other social cues, can transform into outright xenophobia, and in extreme cases, violence.
What can we do?
Understanding the fact that we are predisposed towards xenophobia is vital to understanding why it seems so easy to drive people into such a frenzy that they are willing to kill to “defend” their own. While sensitising people towards the plight of immigrants can help, targeting the social cues that lead to mobilisation is also necessary.
Many of the areas, which have seen these incidents, are rural, with relatively little experience of the Internet and strong reliance on community bonds. Differentiating fact from fiction on social media can be difficult, especially for relatively isolated communities. Stopping the issue at the source is one part of the solution.
This can be addressed through grassroots education about social media and through cracking down on perpetrators (both of violence and malicious forwards), as is being done in Telangana. It is also necessary to make it difficult for such platforms to be used for violent mobilisation, a subject of much ongoing research.
Effective policing also plays a role in preventing such incidents. Vigilantism is a clear sign of distrust in the police force. Lok Surveys data shows that only 38 per cent Indians believe that the police would be most responsive to their needs if their safety and security were under threat as compared to the nearly 48 per cent who answered family, neighbourhood or community.
Improving public trust in the police, and ensuring that they mobilise forces to immediately disperse lynch mobs are vital if we are to make India a safer place than it has become of late.
Arathy Puthillam is a Research Assistant at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, a not-for-profit research organisation based in Mumbai. Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Analyst at the Takshashila Institution.