Helpful behavior during pandemic tied to recognizing commonality

March 14, 2021

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Helpful behavior during pandemic tied to recognizing commonality

As Alicia and I have said a million times over the last 25 years, we are tribal animals, and we recognize fellow tribe members by the number of things that we perceive we have in common with them. Almost every month there is at least one study which supports this fundamental statement.

During this COVID-19 pandemic, people who recognize the connections they share with a wider range of others are more likely to wear a mask, follow health guidelines and help people, even at a potential cost to themselves, a new study shows.

Indeed, an identification with a wider sense of community, as opposed to identification with a geographic area like a country or town, predicts whether someone will engage in “prosocial” behaviors particular to the pandemic, such as donating their own masks to a hospital or coming to the aid of a sick person.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, is drawn from about 2,500 responses, from more than 80 countries, to an international study launched last April.

Researchers say the findings could have implications for public health messaging during this or the next pandemic: Appealing to individuals’ deep sense of connectedness to others could, for example, encourage some people to get vaccinated, wear masks or follow other public health guidelines.

What the researchers say: “We want to understand to what extent people feel connected with and identify with all humanity, and how that can be used to explain the individual differences in how people respond during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said the lead author.

In psychology, “identification with all humanity” as one’s tribe is a belief that can be measured and utilized in predicting behavior or informing policy or decision-making. Last spring, as governments around the world were imposing pandemic restrictions, a multidisciplinary team of researchers came together to study the implications of how people would respond to pandemic-related ethical dilemmas, and how those responses might be associated with various psychological beliefs.

Researchers designed an online study, providing different scenarios based in social psychology and game theory, for participants to consider.

The scenarios presented participants with situations that could arise during the pandemic and asked people to what extent they would:

  • Follow the list of World Health Organization health guidelines (which mostly focused on social distancing and hygiene when the study was run between mid-April to mid-June)
  • Donate unused family masks to a hospital short on masks
  • Drive a person exhibiting obvious symptoms of COVID-19 to the hospital
  • Go to a grocery store to buy food for a neighboring family
  • Call an ambulance and wait with a sick person for it to arrive

In addition to demographic details and information about their local pandemic restrictions, such as stay-at-home orders, participants were asked questions to get at the psychology behind their responses: about their own felt identification with their local community, their nation and humanity, in general. For instance, participants were asked, “How much would you say you care (feel upset, want to help) when bad things happen to people all over the world?”

Researchers found that an identification with “all humanity” significantly predicted answers to the five scenarios, well above identifying with country and after controlling for other variables such as gender, age or education level. Its effect was stronger than any other factor, the researchers found, and popped out as a highly significant predictor of people’s tendency to want to help others.

The authors noted that identifying with one’s country, in fact, came in a distant third, behind identification with humanity in general and one’s local community. Strong feelings toward one’s nation, nationalism, can lead to behavior and policies that favor some groups of people over others.

“There is variability in how people respond to the social aspects of the pandemic. Our research reveals that a crucial aspect of one’s world view—how much people feel connected to others they have never met—predicts people’s cooperation with public health measures and the altruism they feel toward others during the pandemic,” said the researchers.

For COVID-19 and future humanitarian crises, the ethical dilemmas presented in the study can offer insight into what propels people to help, which can, in turn, inform policy and outreach.

“While it is true that many people don’t seem to be exhibiting helpful behaviors during this pandemic, what our study shows is that there are specific characteristics that predict who is especially likely to engage in such behavior,” said the lead author.

So, what? The study is interesting for what it shows about our sense of tribe, and therefore altruism. Whereas most of us confine our deep sense of commonality to those that we are most closely connected with—our family, our work team, our neighbors—there is a section of the population who are able to look beyond that circle and try to help those whose commonality is more distal or more general in nature, a “we are all God’s children” attitude.

The other interesting thing the study showed was that the nation state did not inspire much in the way of shared commonality. This is in line with a lot of recent studies showing that our range of altruism is largely confined to those from whom we look to for mutual support—that maximum of 150 people (the famous Dunbar Number) that we can most readily collaborate with.

Dr Bob Murray

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

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