Empathy prevents COVID-19 spreading

October 18, 2020

Listen to this article

Empathy prevents COVID-19 spreading

The more empathetic we are, the more likely it is that we will keep our distance and use face masks to prevent coronavirus spreading. This knowledge can help save lives, according to the researchers behind this fascinating study.

Empathy for vulnerable people in risk groups motivates us to use face masks and keep our distance, so that we help to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the research published in the journal Psychological Science.

What the researchers say: “We show that empathy for the most vulnerable is an important factor, and that it can be used actively to combat the pandemic. I believe that policy makers can use our new knowledge in their efforts to get more people to follow the guidelines—and ultimately save lives,” said the lead author.

For the study, researchers initially tested the relationship between participants’ empathy and their attitude to social distancing. They tested this in two questionnaire-based studies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. For example, on a scale from 1 to 5, participants were asked how concerned they are about those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Subsequently, they were asked about the extent to which they themselves avoid social contact due to the coronavirus. The relationship is clear. The higher the degree of empathy, the greater the focus on reducing social contact.

Equally importantly, the study shows that it is possible to induce empathy among people, and thereby also make more people willing to keep social distance and wear face masks.

Next, the researchers tested the differences in participants’ willingness to follow the two recommendations, depending on whether they are just informed about the effect of the virus on susceptible people, or whether they are also presented with a vulnerable person. In two experiments, the participants were presented with stories of people who, each in their own way, have been affected by and suffer from the coronavirus. Control groups only received information about the effect of keeping social distance and wearing face masks. And the conclusion is clear: The participants who received the story about people suffering from the coronavirus reported a higher degree of empathy. And a greater willingness to physically distance and use face masks.

“Our results suggest that we need stories of real people suffering. It’s not enough just to tell us that we must keep a distance and wear a face mask for the sake of vulnerable citizens in general,” the researchers added. “If we’re confronted with a specific person who is vulnerable to COVID-19, it is clear that empathy is strengthened, and that we are more likely to follow the guidelines.”

“Our clear recommendation is that policy makers incorporate this knowledge using empathy in their communication initiatives,” they concluded.

So, what? Recent studies have shown that more authoritarian-minded people—those who, for example, support DT, right-wingers in the UK, or supporters of the ruling parties in Hungary, Poland or Turkey—are less likely to be empathetic to others not in their immediate circle and also less likely to follow mask and social distancing guidelines.

They are also more likely to be transactional leaders in the workplace and be less empathetic towards their followers.

The study seems to show that this less empathetic attitude, at least in the area of masking and distancing, can be changed by inducing sympathy for vulnerable people who are not necessarily part of their socio-economic or political “tribe.” That alone makes the study fascinating and their conclusions worthy of more research.

It would be especially interesting to find out the longevity of the change to more empathy. Prior research would tend to indicate that the change in attitude might be very short-lived.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.