Explaining illness with evil: Pathogen prevalence fosters moral vitalism

Brock Bastian, Christin-Melanie Vauclair, Loughnan Steve, Paul Bain, Ashwini Ashokkumar, Maja Becker, Michał Bilewicz, Emma Collier-Baker, Carla Crespo, Paul Eastwick, Ronald Fischer, Malte Friese, Ángel Gómez, Valeschka Guerra, Jose Luis 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 Yeung, Jacob Duffy, William Swann Jr.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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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
Article number20191576
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B
Issue number1914
Early online date30 Oct 2019
Publication statusPublished - 30 Nov 2019


  • disease
  • morality
  • pathogens
  • spiritual belief
  • vitalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)


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