January 29, 2018

Discriminating Ecologies: A Life History Approach to Stigma and Health

Steven Neuberg , Arizona State University

How does being discriminated against affect a person’s health, and through what mechanisms? Most research has focused on two causal pathways, highlighting how discrimination increases psychological stress and exposure to neighborhood hazards. I advance an alternative, complementary set of mechanisms through which stigma and discrimination may shape health. Grounded in evolutionary biology’s life history theory, the framework holds that discrimination alters aspects of the physical and social ecologies in which people live, such as access to tangible economic resources, unpredictable extrinsic causes of early mortality, biased sex ratios, and community social networks. These discriminating ecologies, in turn, pull for specific behaviors and physiological responses (e.g., related to risk taking, sexual activity, offspring care, fat storage) that can be viewed as active, strategic, and rational given the threats and opportunities afforded by these ecologies, but which also have downstream implications for a wide range of health outcomes. This framework generates unique hypotheses, including predictions (a) about the effects of discrimination on a large number of (often underappreciated) negative health outcomes, ranging from physical injury and sexually transmitted diseases to diseases related to obesity and drug use; and (b) about the ecological factors that mediate between stigmatization and health outcomes, and the behavioral and physiological strategies these features engage. It also suggests specific approaches to intervention, while pointing to complex ethical issues. In all, the life history framework complements more traditional perspectives by providing nuanced insights and hypotheses about the discrimination-health relationship.

←Back