CAMBRIDGE, England — People who are more afraid of catching Covid-19 are also more judgmental, according to a new study by scientists at the University of Cambridge.
Researchers studying how we make moral judgments found that people more concerned about the disease were more disapproving when it came to the wrongdoings of others — regardless of what they were doing wrong.
The findings are evidence that our morality is shaped by emotions and intuitions, and concerns about health and safety are big factors. This, the authors say, means that our judgments of wrongdoing are not completely rational.
The study, published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, did not focus on behaviors relating to the pandemic itself, like social distancing, but a varied range of moral transgressions.
“There is no rational reason to be more judgmental of others because you are worrying about getting sick during the pandemic,” in a statement. “These influences on judgments happen outside of our conscious awareness. If we feel that our wellbeing is threatened by the coronavirus, we are also likely to feel more threatened by other people’s wrongdoing — it’s an emotional link.”
Between March and May 2020, over 900 study participants in the U.S. were presented with a series of scenarios and asked to rate them on a scale from ‘”not at all wrong” to “extremely wrong.” This allowed researchers to measure participants’ responses across five key moral principles: harm, fairness, in-group loyalty, deference to authority, and purity.
Example scenarios include one of loyalty: “You see a man leaving his family business to go work for their main competitor”; and one of fairness: “You see a tenant bribing a landlord to be the first to get their apartment repainted.”
People who were more worried about catching Covid-19 judged the behaviors in these scenarios to be more wrong than those who were less worried. The findings contribute to a growing body of evidence of a link between physical disgust — an emotion designed to keep us from harm — and moral condemnation.
“Disgust is an emotion we think evolved to protect us from harm – avoiding a filthy toilet that might contaminate us with disease, for example,” says Robert Henderson, a PhD student in the university’s Department of Psychology and first author of the report. “But now we apply it to social situations too, and can feel physically jeopardized by other people’s behavior.
“The link between being concerned about Covid-19 and moral condemnation is about risks to wellbeing,” he continues. “If you’re more conscious of health risks, you’re also more conscious of social risks — people whose behavior could inflict harm upon you.”
The research was funded by the Gates Foundation Cambridge and the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.
SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.