Washington, March 29: Stigmatisation or ostracism may have once served to protect early humans from infectious diseases but that strategy may do more harm than good for modern humans, according to researchers.
“The things that made stigmas a more functional strategy thousands of years ago rarely exist. Now, it would not promote positive health behaviour and, in many cases, it could actually make the situation worse,” explained Rachel Smith, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences and human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University.
For early humans, a person who was stigmatised by the group typically suffered a quick death, often from a lack of food or from falling prey to a predator.
Groups did not mix on a regular basis so another group was unlikely to adopt an ostracised person.
Infectious disease stigmas may have evolved as a social defense for group-living species, and had adaptive functions when early humans had these interaction patterns, the researchers added.
“However, modern society is much larger, more mobile and safer from predators, eliminating the effectiveness of this strategy,” said David Hughes, assistant professor of entomology and biology.
Stigmatisation could actually make infectious disease management worse.
The threat of ostracization may make people less likely to seek out medical treatment.
“If people refuse to seek treatment and go about their daily routines, they may cause the disease to spread farther and faster,” according to the researchers.
“People are very sensitive to rejection and humans worry about being ostracized,” Smith said.
These worries and experiences with rejection can cause problematic levels of stress and, unfortunately, stress can compromise the immune system’s ability to fight off an infection, accelerating disease progression, she added.
Once applied, a stigma is difficult to remove, even when there are obvious signs that the person was never infected or is cured, Smith noted in a paper that appeared in the current issue of Communication Studies.