Empathy key in battling COVID-19: study

Researchers also found sharing real stories from people vulnerable to COVID-19 induced more empathy than guidelines

Diana Duong 4 minute read October 16, 2020
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New study finds showing empathy helps motivate others to use face masks and keep physically distance, thereby slowing the spread of COVID-19. Getty Images

  • The higher the empathy, the more likely a person will wear masks and social distance
  • Hearing stories from vulnerable people made study participants more likely to follow guidelines
  • Individualism vs. collectivism: Countries with higher disease prevalence tend to have more collectivist values

It looks like giving a damn about others can help more people keep healthy. Whether it’s wearing a mask or maintaining physical distances, both actions are easier to do when one feels empathy for people other than ourselves. In a  new study published in Psychological Science, Danish researchers conducted surveys in German, British, and American populations and found the more empathetic a person, the more likely they’ll follow public health guidelines.

Many public health measures require putting societal needs before one’s own individual needs and instincts. Staying home, skipping in-person social gatherings, downloading a contact tracing app — it’s all for the greater good.

Researchers tested participants’ willingness to physical distance and their empathy levels in two questionnaire-based studies. Participants were asked on a scale from one to five how concerned they were about people most vulnerable to the coronavirus. They were also asked about their mask-wearing habits and the extent to which they avoid social contact. Researchers found the higher the empathy, the more willing they were to reduce social contact.

“If you want to get more people on board, it’s crucial to know what mechanisms make them keep a distance and wear a face mask,” says lead author Stefan Pfattheicher, associate professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus BSS in Aarhus University, in an interview on his university’s website.

“We show that empathy for the most vulnerable is an important factor, and that it can be used actively to combat the pandemic.”

Stories from real people induce more empathy

They also tested participants’ willingness to follow public health guidelines depending on how they were educated about the virus. In one group, participants simply received guidelines on how to keep social distance and wear face masks. In another, they were presented with a vulnerable person who had been affected by COVID-19. Those who heard stories of people suffering reported higher degrees of empathy — and therefore willingness to follow public health measures.

“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. 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,” says Pfattheicher.

Study authors say their findings should be incorporated into public health strategies.

“Our clear recommendation is that policy makers incorporate this knowledge about the emotional impact in their communication initiatives,” says co-author Michael Bang Petersen, a professor at the Department of Political Science, in an interview. He gives the example of Denmark’s recently launched “distancing badges,” which the Danish Government has provided in pharmacies for vulnerable citizens to wear.

“It will probably induce empathy and influence the behaviour of others. At all events, this is one method of putting a face on those who are particularly vulnerable,” says Petersen.

Individualism versus collectivism

This study took place in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, but researchers believe their findings are applicable to the rest of the Western world.

Some believe differences between Eastern and Western societal values has affected the spread of COVID-19. The Globe and Mail reports:

“The West generally and the United States in particular focuses on the individual, the rights, freedoms and accomplishments of men and women. In Confucian society, the emphasis is on the community, and an individual is taught to put the group’s interests ahead of his or her interest,” writes journalist Frank Ching. “Confucian societies emphasize harmony and discipline. Rights are generally coupled with responsibilities.”

The U.S., meanwhile, has a uniquely stubborn sense of self-reliance, to the point where it is endangering the vulnerable. In the Atlantic, Meghan O’Rourke writes:

“We are so addicted to the concept of individual responsibility that we have a fragmented health-care system, a weak social safety net, and a culture of averting our eyes from other people’s physical vulnerability.”

However, it’s possible that after this pandemic, the U.S. may be less individualistic. Cultural psychology research has shown that societies with higher pathogen exposure are more likely to shift to collectivist values. A 2008 paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found that countries with a higher infectious disease prevalence significantly tended to adopt collectivist values.

dduong@postmedia.com | @dianaduo
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