Explaining illness with evil: Pathogen prevalence fosters moral vitalism

Brock Bastian, Christin Melanie Vauclair, Steve Loughnan, Paul Bain, Ashwini Ashokkumar, Maja Becker, Michał Bilewicz, Emma Collier-Baker, Carla Crespo, Paul W. Eastwick, Ronald Fischer, Malte Friese, Ángel Gómez, Valeschka M. Guerra, José Luis Castellanos Guevara, Katja Hanke, Nic Hooper, Li Li Huang, Shi Junqi, Minoru KarasawaPeter Kuppens, Siri Leknes, Müjde Peker, Cesar Pelay, Afroditi Pina, Marianna Sachkova, Tamar Saguy, Mia Silfver-Kuhalampi, Florencia Sortheix, Jennifer Tong, Victoria Wai Lan Yeung, Jacob Duffy, William B. Swann

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Pathogens represent a significant threat to human health leading to the emergence of strategies designed to help manage their negative impact. We examined how spiritual beliefs developed to explain and predict the devastating effects of pathogens and spread of infectious disease. Analysis of existing data in studies 1 and 2 suggests that moral vitalism (beliefs about spiritual forces of evil) is higher in geographical regions characterized by historical higher levels of pathogens. Furthermore, drawing on a sample of 3140 participants from 28 countries in study 3, we found that historical higher levels of pathogens were associated with stronger endorsement of moral vitalistic beliefs. Furthermore, endorsement of moral vitalistic beliefs statistically mediated the previously reported relationship between pathogen prevalence and conservative ideologies, suggesting these beliefs reinforce behavioural strategies which function to prevent infection. We conclude that moral vitalism may be adaptive: by emphasizing concerns over contagion, it provided an explanatory model that enabled human groups to reduce rates of contagious disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20191576
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1914
StatePublished - Nov 6 2019


  • Disease
  • Morality
  • Pathogens
  • Spiritual belief
  • Vitalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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