Empathy prevents COVID-19 spreading

The more empathetic we are, the more likely it is that we will keep our distance and use face masks to prevent coronavirus spreading. This knowledge can help save lives, according to the researchers behind a new study. They demonstrate that it is possible to increase our empathy and willingness to follow advice on social distancing and face masks.

13.10.2020 | MIA ULVGRAVEN

Maintain social distancing. Wear a face mask. Show consideration.

We see information and guidelines everywhere, but some are more likely to follow them than others. A study from Aarhus BSS, which has just been published in the journal 'Psychological Science', shows that empathy plays a significant role in this context. Empathy for vulnerable people in risk groups motivates us to use face masks and keep our distance.

Equally importantly, the experiments carried out as part of the study show that it is possible to induce empathy among people, and thereby also make more people willing to follow the two specific recommendations that prevent the spread of COVID-19.

"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. 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," says Stefan Pfattheicher, an associate professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University.

Across three countrys

He is heading the study in which researchers have initially tested the relationship between participants' empathy and their attitude to social distancing. They tested this in two questionnaire-based studies across three countries. For example, on a scale from 1 to 5, participants were asked how concerned they are about those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. Subsequently, they were asked about the extent to which they themselves avoid social contact due to the coronavirus. The relationship is clear. The higher the degree of empathy, the greater the focus on reducing social contact.

"With this knowledge, I’d like to go one step further and test whether you can actively use empathy to promote the use of face masks and physical distancing," says Stephan Pfattheicher.

And you can.

"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"

Stefan Pfattheicher, associate professor, Department of Psychology and Behavioural Science, Aarhus BSS

Real people induce empathy

In two experiments, the researchers tested the differences in participants' willingness to follow the two recommendations, depending on whether they are just informed about the effect of the two initiatives, or whether they are also presented with a vulnerable person. In the first experiment, a group of participants watched a one-minute video of a 91-year-old man who, because of COVID-19, had stopped visiting his chronically sick wife. In the second experiment, a group of participants read a story about a woman with a rare immune disorder, who had been hospitalised in an intensive care unit because of coronavirus. In both experiments, there were also control groups who only received information about the effect of either a face mask or social distancing, without receiving the personal narrative. And again the conclusion is clear. The participants who received the story about people suffering from the coronavirus reported a higher degree of empathy. And also a greater willingness to physically distance and use face masks.

"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," says Stefan Pfattheicher. 

Clear recommendation

"Our results are robust, but it is also important to note that other researchers have conducted studies this year in which they do not find any effect from urging people to protect those vulnerable to coronavirus. The difference is probably that we use relatively strong emotional tools in our experiments. This nuance can be decisive for motivation," says Stefan Pfattheicher, who has worked with four other researchers from Germany and Denmark, including his Aarhus BSS colleague, Michael Bang Petersen, who has advised the Danish Government on managing the coronavirus pandemic.

"Our clear recommendation is that policy makers incorporate this knowledge about the emotional impact in their communication initiatives," says Michael Bang Petersen, a professor at the Department of Political Science.

A good example he stresses is that the Danish Government has recently launched a distancing badge, which can be obtained from pharmacies in Denmark and worn by particularly vulnerable citizens.

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

About the study

The studies were conducted in Germany, the UK and the US. The correlation between empathy and willingness to keep a distance and wear a face mask applies across the countries, and the researchers believe that the results can be transferred to Denmark and the rest of the Western world.

The full study can be downloaded here: "The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic."

Stefan Pfattheicher and Michael Bang Petersen from Aarhus BSS have collaborated with Laila Nockur and Claudia Sassenrath from Ulm University and Robert Böhm from the University of Copenhagen.