• Robb G. Best

Altruism During the Pandemic Linked to Common Root


Quick, how likely would you be to:

  • Follow the World Health Organization guidelines on social distancing and hygiene?

  • Donate your own masks to a hospital in need?

  • Drive someone showing clear symptoms of COVID-19 to the hospital?

  • Go to a grocery store to buy food for your neighbors?

  • Call an ambulance for a sick person and wait with them for it to arrive?

This was part of an online survey given to 2500 people across 80 countries for a study by the University of Washington.


This study aimed to get at the psychology of why some people have gone above and beyond to be helpful during the pandemic, limiting the spread as much as possible and assisting others when they can, while others still can't be bothered to put on a mask when they go to the store.


The survey also collected demographic information and asked participants about the extent to which they felt connected to their local community, their nation, and the whole human race. A sample question: “How much would you say you care (feel upset, want to help) when bad things happen to people all over the world?”


The number one variable found to influence how people answered the five questions at the top was a strong sense of affiliation with all of humankind. The more people identified themselves as part of humanity in general, the more likely they were to display beneficial, or pro-social, behaviors. The effect was stronger than any other factor, notes study co-leader Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a postdoctoral researcher at the UW Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, who oversaw the study along with postdoctoral researcher Nigini Oliveira at the Paul G. Allen School for Computer Science and Engineering.


In fact, identifying chiefly with one's nation came in a distant third. People who oriented this more nationalistic way were more likely to enact behavior and policies that favor some groups over others.


"There is variability in how people respond to the social aspects of the pandemic," says co-author Andrew Meltzoff. "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."


One might wonder how honest the survey respondents would be answering questions about their likelihood to show helpful behavior. Wouldn't there be a natural impulse to lie to make themselves look better? However, the researchers note that the gulf of difference between those who identify with humanity and those who identify with their nation suggests people are being more or less truthful, since there would be no reason for the people who chose the less helpful options to be answering more honestly.


This piece of research is part of a larger multidiscipline project by the same UW team, aiming to bring together computer scientists and psychologists to study decision-making in a variety of contexts. The team hopes to eventually use tools from AI research and international online interactions to get a better grasp on how our culture influences our social and moral decision-making. If we can understand the feelings that inspire people to aid others in times of crisis, maybe we can find ways to encourage those feelings.


“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 Barragan. “Future work could help people to feel a stronger connection to others, and this could promote more helpful behavior during pandemics.”

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