What stops COVID from spreading? Empathy, according to new study

AARHUS, Denmark — From mask mandates to national shutdowns, governments have tried everything to keep the coronavirus from spreading. Could the answer simply be caring more about other people? Researchers from Aarhus University say empathy plays a major role in who does and doesn’t follow social distancing rules.

While the study reveals people who are less empathetic will likely be less motivated to follow COVID restrictions, it is possible to create more empathy in the public. This connection to others also leads more people to take proper health precautions during the pandemic.

“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 associate professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Stefan Pfattheicher in a university release.

“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.”

Empathy increases when hearing of others’ struggles

Researchers conducted a series of experiments, either presenting participants in three countries with a coronavirus patient’s personal story or simply providing them with information on face masks and social distancing.

In one experiment, participants watched a one-minute video about a 91-year-old man who could not visit with his chronically ill wife due to COVID-19. Another test had volunteers read a story about a woman suffering from a rare immune disorder. She had to be hospitalized in the intensive care unit because of coronavirus.

Participants who learn about actual people impacted by COVID report having a higher level of empathy for the crisis. These individuals also say they have a greater willingness to use face masks and remain socially distant.

“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,” Pfattheicher contends.

Crafting the perfect message

Pfattheicher cautions other studies have shown that public messages have little impact on a person’s choice to observe COVID restrictions.

“The difference is probably that we use relatively strong emotional tools in our experiments. This nuance can be decisive for motivation,” Pfattheicher adds.

Michael Bang Petersen, a Professor in the Department of Political Science, notes that Danish officials have launched a distancing badge. Citizens who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 wear the badges to alert others to be mindful.

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

The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.

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