The coronavirus pandemic has engendered a lot of altruism. This is welcome but not surprising, as a group of people facing a threat usually relies on collective action to control their self-interest. Cooperation and generosity are part of our evolutionary heritage, and they usually only require a slight push to be nurtured. Most people are happy to wear a mask in a hospital or on an airplane, for example, because they want to be seen as neighbors.
This winter, COVID-19 will continue to demand our attention, and we’ve sadly exhausted our stock of soft-touch options to awaken these inner angels. It will take more if we are to harness one of our greatest natural advantages as a species – the impulse to help others.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have seen a mixture of altruistic and odious behavior. A puzzling characteristic of human nature is that they exist in a delicate balance.
On the one hand, Americans have given their time to sew fabric masks, put food banks to work, and comfort those struggling with loneliness. A group from Minnesota equaled hundreds of volunteers with people who needed child care. Brooklyn Hasidic Jews who had recovered from COVID-19 broke their Sabbath to drive overnight to hospitals in Pennsylvania to donate their serum. Many employers continued to pay their employees even though they were not at work. And despite the financial stress of the pandemic, recent statistics show that charitable donations increased by 2% in 2020 compared to 2019.
Doctors and nurses, as well as members of less advertised professions, such as babysitters, grocery store clerks and home health aides, have suspected personal risk of infection and death. And the extraordinarily rapid development of vaccines and drugs to treat COVID-19 reflected an extensive and generous sharing of knowledge by scientists around the world, as well as the volunteerism of study participants.
On the flip side, we’ve also seen that a severe pandemic can ignite vile tendencies. In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has triggered all manner of anti-social behavior, including people coughing and spitting at masked shoppers and politicians targeting Asian Americans or Latin American immigrants. We’ve seen fights break out in grocery stores, at school board meetings, and on airplanes over infection control regulations. And among those who do not want to be vaccinated, we have seen constant resistance to helping their most vulnerable neighbors.
Some people are clearly more selfless than others. But even these super-cooperators can’t do all of the heavy lifting on their own. Random or individual-level efforts to be helpful are seldom sufficient to maintain cooperation among a larger population. On the one hand, a cooperator surrounded by non-cooperators will usually cease to be useful – because who wants to be a fool? However, moving to a dynamic of âevery man for himselfâ is detrimental to all. This is no way to fight a plague.
And so the survival of our species has depended on the evolution of innate responses to keep these so-called stowaways primarily under control, to ensure that there are enough people ready to run into burning buildings to save. lives and much less that ignite fires. Evolution has given us tools to tip the scales towards cooperation. And we have to use all of these tools in our current situation.
What are these responses shaped by our evolution? The first is that cooperation is more likely when a group faces a common enemy. That we already have, in the form of this nasty virus.
Another is that people are more likely to cooperate if they anticipate future interactions with the same people. This is one of the reasons people are likely to wear a mask at work with familiar coworkers, but ignore it when shopping at a grocery store.
Repeated interactions also tend to promote reciprocity of kindness, and therefore encourage increasingly altruistic behaviors. Mandates for vaccines and masks by businesses, schools and other places where people see each other repeatedly are good practice not only because they indicate respect for customers and employees, but also because they promote reciprocal altruism which leads to optimal practice of public health more generally.
Additionally, people are generally more willing to follow the rules regarding physical distancing or masking if they understand them primarily as a way to help others. Our continuing public health message can harness this quality. One study evaluated whether it was more effective to tell people, “Follow these steps to avoid get coronavirus â, or to tell them,â Follow these steps to avoid diffusion coronavirus. “It turns out that the focus on the public threat of the virus is at least as effective, and sometimes more effective, than the focus on the personal threat, but perhaps not as much for the minority of selfish refractories.
But what if individual motivations and soft forces are not enough? Here, the interpersonal nature of contagious disease, namely that individual actions which increase or reduce personal risk simultaneously increase or reduce the risks imposed on the person. others– creates the problem of collective action in the first place and justifies more energetic, even coercive, measures on the part of schools, construction sites and the government. Because we have not yet been able to respond to the pandemic as effectively as we should, we may need to deploy them.
One evolutionary characteristic that promotes cooperative behavior is the human inclination towards what I call “moderate hierarchy,” a kind of social order that is neither too unequal nor too egalitarian, neither too punitive nor too permissive. To ensure that if Person A is kind to Person B (for example, by wearing a mask, staying home when sick or getting vaccinated) then Person B will return the favor, we have evolved the capacity and desire for a centralized application– precisely to suppress selfishness and abuse. We tolerate policing by our leaders (up to a point) because it is a more effective way of encouraging collective action than a pitch fork at a neighbor’s door or individual attempts to impose reciprocity.
We also practice punishment and ostracism, which can, under the right circumstances, promote cooperation. Running away from transgressors comes naturally to us because, in our ancestral past, it has been useful for our collective survival. Research studies in laboratories around the world, including mine, have shown the need for such pressures to avoid a tragedy of the commons, where all suffer because of parasitism. For example, in a study in my laboratory involving hundreds of people arranged in dozens of groups, the ability of people to avoid those who did not act altruistically helped to reinforce good behavior in everyone.
Of course, peer pressure or fear of ostracism can also force people to take actions that hurt themselves or their own community. There has been a recent wave of sad cases of conservative media figures. die from COVID-19 after having denounced vaccines or other public health measures in order to signal membership of their political group. People who work together should always aim for healthy goals. This is another way leadership is crucial: setting worthwhile goals.
A large collective effort will be needed to prevent even more deaths and shutdowns from the virus this winter. Since the actions of some people can put the health of others at risk, we must be prepared to harness the full range of our evolutionary impulses towards cooperation. Some of these less attractive evolutionary abilities to enforce cooperation – which seems oxymoronic – may be needed.
Indeed, President Joe Biden announced a wide range of interventions last month, including requiring all employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccinations and the same for federal and other workers. âWe are in a difficult time, and this could last for some time,â Biden said in a speech at the White House. “What makes it incredibly more frustrating is that we have the tools to fight COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, is preventing us from turning the corner.”
From the perspective of our innate cooperative abilities, one should expect both Biden’s practical responses and his emotional framing. We don’t need to view these actions in a negative or even authoritarian light. These are not just the cogs of our political system. They are rooted in our ancient past, helping us to survive.
From an evolutionary perspective, putting our thumbs up on the COVID-19 response ladder allows our natural impulse for good to flourish. And such efforts are in keeping with our basic instinct to be selfless and cooperative in the first place. As Albert Camus argued in his novel Plague, âWhat is true of all the evils in the world is also true of the plague. He helps men and women to rise above themselves.