Infectious diseases, contamination rumors and ethnic violence: Regimental mutinies in the Bengal Native Army in 1857 India

Sunasir Dutta, Hayagreeva Rao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


The current paper connects anxiety about disease contamination to that about cultural contamination and the exclusionary behavior toward ethnic outgroups that it incites. We suggest that when individuals are exposed to disease fears, an epistemic groundwork is laid for construing outgroups as sources of contamination. We begin with a pilot experiment showing that contagious disease anxiety primes opposition to legalization of illegal aliens. We then analyze historical data about the diffusion of rumor-based ethnic violence, showing that Indian regiments of the East India Company were more likely to mutiny against their British officers if they had been exposed some months earlier to a cholera discourse. (These mutinies were proximally caused by acceptance of a rumor that the Company administration had violated a cultural taboo.) We discuss implications for studying the cognitive antecedents of the diffusion of beliefs and practices in organizations and in cultures.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-47
Number of pages12
JournalOrganizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes
StatePublished - Jul 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Seema Alavi, Dirk Kolff, Dale Miller, and Benoit Monin for their advice. We are grateful to Michael Morris and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive criticism and suggestions for improving the paper. For insightful comments in the early stages of the project we also thank Gary Fine, John Meyer, and the late Mayer Zald. This project was supported by research funding to the second author from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 Elsevier Inc..


  • Contagious disease
  • Contamination rumors
  • Cross-cultural prejudice
  • Disgust avoidance
  • Ethnic violence
  • Intergroup conflict
  • Mutiny
  • Purity norms


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