New research found evidence for the role of empathy in motivating public compliance with health recommendations during the COVID-19 crisis. The findings were published in Psychological Science.
The coronavirus pandemic represents a unique time in history when the outcome of a global crisis is largely dependent on the cooperation of everyday citizens. As study authors Stefan Pfattheicher and team explain, the successful navigation of the pandemic depends on citizens being willing to change their social habits in a substantial way.
Since practicing safety measures requires a level of self-sacrifice, Pfattheicher and colleagues suggest that the decision to comply likely reflects a prosocial emotional process — empathy. In a series of studies, the researchers explored whether empathy for those who are vulnerable to the virus would reflect higher compliance with COVID-19 safety measures.
Surveys were distributed among US residents who were recruited on March 17, 2020, UK and Germany residents who were recruited on March 18, 2020, and an additional German sample that was recruited on March 19, 2020. The surveys measured empathy for those vulnerable to COVID-19 with five items (e.g., “I am very concerned about those most vulnerable to coronavirus (COVID-19)”, and additionally measured participants’ social distancing behavior. Results showed that, among all three samples, as empathy increased, so did compliance with social distancing.
Prompted by these findings, Pfattheicher and colleagues next tested whether an empathy manipulation could effectively trigger compliance to social distancing. The researchers conducted an experimental study among 868 German residents, recruited on March 18 and 19, 2020.
The experiment had three conditions. In the information-only condition, subjects read a text that briefly described the importance of social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus, particularly as a way to protect those who are vulnerable. In the empathy condition, subjects read the same text and then watched a video in which an elderly man revealed that he is no longer visiting his sick wife due to the virus. Finally, a control condition neither read the text nor saw the video. All participants then reported their intention to adhere to social distancing.
The empathy manipulation appeared to be effective in swaying participants. Those who saw the empathy video reported greater intention to partake in social distancing than those who only saw the text, or who saw neither the text nor video.
In a final study, the researchers found evidence that this appeal to empathy motivates subjects to change their behavior through prosocial motives (to protect those who are vulnerable), rather than egotistical motives (to protect oneself).
Among another sample of German residents, appealing to empathy was linked to a higher intention to wear a face mask. Since face masks were widely publicized as offering more protection to others than to the wearer, the decision to wear a face mask can be seen as a more clearly prosocial behavior.
“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 said in a news release.
However, the authors note, it is difficult to pinpoint whether the change in subjects’ responses to safety behaviors was truly the result of altruistic emotion. The authors explain, “we cannot in the present study rule out potential egoistic explanations, such as the desire to develop a good reputation or to avoid social sanctions.”
Still, the findings demonstrate that solely providing information about why social distancing is important is not enough to move public behavior. Instead, it appears that empathy can be used as a tool to promote compliance with public health safety measures, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis.
Read the full study: “The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic”, authored by Stefan Pfattheicher, Laila Nockur, Robert Böhm, Claudia Sassenrath, and Michael Bang Petersen.