Hunger moderates the activation of psychological disease avoidance mechanisms

Sarah E. Ainsworth*, Jon K. Maner

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Humans evolved to possess psychological mechanisms that help them avoid coming into contact with infectious diseases. Those mechanisms promote vigilance to and avoidance of disease cues, including heuristic cues displayed by other people (e.g., old age, obesity). The current research demonstrated that hunger-a state that sensitizes people to the presence of foodborne pathogens-moderated the activation of psychological disease avoidance mechanisms. In 2 experiments, hunger moderated the effect of pathogen priming on responses to social disease cues. A pathogen prime led participants who were subjectively hungry (Experiment 1) and who had abstained from eating for 5 hr (Experiment 2) to display heightened disease avoidance responses, including increases in overt prejudice (Experiment 1) and biases toward categorizing targets into groups heuristically associated with disease (the obese and the elderly). These findings highlight the functional interplay between psychological and physiological processes in helping people avoid disease. Findings also have implications for identifying subtle sources of social prejudice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)303-313
Number of pages11
JournalEvolutionary Behavioral Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2014


  • Behavioral immune system
  • Disease avoidance
  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Prejudice
  • Social cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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