The ever-changing public health measures rolled out during the coronavirus pandemic haven’t always been crystal clear. But several instructions have remained the same throughout: wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay two metres apart.
Despite the strength and frequency of this messaging, however, the public hasn’t always complied. Though the exact reason for this non-compliance is clearly complex, researchers from the University of Washington have proposed one factor that could influence people’s behaviour: the extent to which they identify with other human beings. Writing in PLOS One, they suggest that a connection with and moral commitment to other humans may be linked to greater willingness to follow COVID-related guidelines.
Participants were 2537 adults from across the world, based in countries in North and South America, Europe and Asia. First, they were asked how likely they were to comply with the health behaviours recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) at the start of 2020, when the pandemic begun to spread across the world. The four key behaviours the WHO recommended were thoroughly washing hands, covering the mouth when coughing or sneezing, social distancing, and not touching the face.
They were then asked how likely they were to engage in four prosocial behaviours: donating masks to a hospital, picking up someone with COVID-19 from the side of the road, going grocery shopping for a family that needed food despite stay-at-home guidelines, and calling an ambulance for someone afflicted with the virus.
Participants then indicated how strict their country or area’s lockdown was at the time, how available tests were in their area, and how much they perceived themselves at personal risk of contracting the virus. They also reported how much they identified with their own community and their own nation, and finally how much they identified with all humanity (e.g. responding to statements like “how much do you believe in being loyal to all humanity?”).
Those who identified more strongly with all of humanity were significantly more likely to say they’d engage both in prosocial behaviours, such as donating masks and going grocery shopping for others, and in the WHO health behaviours designed to stop the spread of the virus. Other factors also had an impact on prosocial behaviours — identification with one’s community was strongly linked with several outcomes, for instance. But identification with all of humanity was the only variable that significantly predicted all five outcomes, and had a much larger effect than any of the other variables.
The results are positive news for those who reject nationalism — participants who identified more closely both with their own community and humanity as a whole were more likely to engage in prosocial and health behaviours than those who strongly identified with their nation alone. As the team puts it, the strongest prosocial behaviour is seen in those who feel connected to “the larger family of humanity” than to a specific nation.
But how, exactly, does identification with humanity develop? Further research could look at the genesis of such ideas, as well as looking at a wider demographic sample (72% of this sample were university educated, for example). Ascertaining whether certain personality types or traits are linked to such beliefs could also be illuminating.
It’s also unclear how far these findings go in explaining not just non-compliance but outright rejection of guidelines. Finding out what makes anti-lockdown groups tick may also be necessary when it comes to increasing uptake of public health measures.