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How Disaster Can Inspire Human Connection

Catastrophe ignites our compassionate tendencies—a hidden asset for resilience.

Key points

  • Historical and psychological research suggests that in collective crises, people are generally inspired to act with compassion, not selfishness.
  • In the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic people reported feeling inspired to connect, and that their interactions were more meaningful.
  • Our drive to connect is a hidden asset that may be tapped to promote resilience in disaster relief efforts.
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San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 Earthquake
Source: Library of Congress/Unsplash

In 1906 a massive earthquake shook San Francisco, displacing much of the population. Escaping from the wreckage and the subsequent fires that spread across the city, people found themselves reaching out to one another in incredible ways, collaborating to rescue, support, feed, and even entertain and laugh with each other—some actually felt so joyously connected that they looked back on that time of disaster with genuine fondness.

This and other similar stories are explored by historian and writer Rebecca Solnit in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. Solnit describes how in historical accounts of collective crises people are generally inspired to come together to connect and help each other, rather than to respond to chaos with selfishness or mob violence.

Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki terms this phenomenon "catastrophe compassion"—a natural human drive toward altruism when disaster strikes.

Adrien Delforge/Unsplash
Grocery store lines at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic
Source: Adrien Delforge/Unsplash

Collective Compassion and COVID-19

In the weeks following the WHO declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic, we were all thrown into a chaotic moment where catastrophe compassion was a common experience.

Consider this story—shared with me by a research participant when I gathered people’s experiences of meaningful connection during that uncertain time:

I was doing some quick shopping, and doing my best to minimize contact…as myself and my elderly parents who live with me are all high-risk for the virus. I got to the aisle with the toilet paper and there was none. I started to cry because we were out completely and this woman who saw me took the time to comfort me (from 6 ft away) and to tell me to come to her restaurant after I was done shopping and she would give me a few industrial/food service sized rolls from her restaurant. I did and she did and she refused payment...she saw me, saw me suffering and did something to alleviate it...it made me much happier for the rest of the day, gave me faith in my fellow man (Smallen, 2021, p. 2900)

While a scene of tears and compassionate support over toilet paper might not be common in ordinary times, in those urgent and emotional first weeks of the pandemic, many people shared with me stories of relatively high-level acts of kindness (often enough in picked-over grocery store aisles)—experiences that strengthened their sense of solidarity with others.

Nicholas Bartos/Unsplash
Source: Nicholas Bartos/Unsplash

Indeed, people I surveyed were generally deeply grateful for the “opportunity” to offer support both to strangers and loved ones. Many also described an impatient desire for the chance to express appreciation to frontline workers.

Moments of Connection at the Beginning of the Pandemic

When I studied the sense people made of how the pandemic impacted their social interactions in those first weeks, I found that there were several common experiences unique to that time of collective crisis.

It felt more meaningful to connect: People described feeling moved by social interactions that usually would have felt less meaningful, and indicated that they were not taking moments of connection for granted—the perceived risks posed by the pandemic made connecting with others feel more urgent and special. Even a quick polite conversation or a wave on the street could evoke a deep feeling of appreciation.

People were more motivated to connect: People experienced a more empathetic orientation toward others, deeply wanting to help and engage. This included giving and receiving high-level support, but also a drive toward deeper connection—people shared that they opened up more intimately with folks in their life and some even reached out to estranged relatives.

Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

People experienced a sense of common struggle: Grappling with the emerging pandemic gave people a common experience to connect over. Some people even described the pandemic as a common “foe” to struggle against together—and a common foe is something social scientists have long known is quite effective in tightening the bonds of social groups.

Indeed Zaki explains that when a traumatic event touches lives across a community, everyone suddenly has a shared identity—they are all now part of the family of people facing this particular adversity. They also are likely to have a greater sense of shared reality, a key factor in human connection.

The Drive to Connect as an Asset for Resilience

Plans for harnessing people’s natural drive to connect and contribute are important to consider in preparing for potential catastrophic events—because both social connection and helping others benefit people's ability to cope and find resilience in collective crises.

Moments of connection help our nervous system move from agitation, fear, and stress, to more calm states—especially when we are in contact with those with whom we’ve developed a sense of emotional and physical security. Being able to regulate our nervous systems together amid an ongoing crisis helps people process the emotional impact of the event, buffering against lasting psychological trauma.

Alexander Zvir/Pexels
Source: Alexander Zvir/Pexels

Supporting others offers people a chance to feel that their actions matter even in a situation that seems beyond their control—which again promotes resilience. When people have a chance to exercise their altruistic tendencies, they can feel a sense of purpose as part of the solution rather than helpless in the face of adversity.

Solnit describes how official disaster response efforts often fail to include impacted communities in operations, sidelining people from making contributions and connecting with each other—and yet, when empowered to turn to one another, we have a chance to find order amid chaos, meaning amid despair, and even comfort amid devastation.

References

Solnit, R. (2010). A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin.

Zaki, J. (2020). Catastrophe compassion: understanding and extending prosociality under crisis. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 24(8), 587–589.

Smallen, D. (2021). Experiences of meaningful connection in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(10), 2886–2905.

Benard, S. and Doan, L. (2011), "The Conflict–Cohesion Hypothesis: Past, Present, and Possible Futures", Thye, S.R. and Lawler, E.J. (Ed.) Advances in Group Processes (Vol. 28), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 189-225.

Rossignac-Milon, M., Bolger, N., Zee, K. S., Boothby, E. J., & Higgins, E. T. (2021). Merged minds: generalized shared reality in dyadic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 120(4), 882-911.

Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell, C. C., Bryant, R. A., Melissa, J., Friedman, M. J., … Ursano, R.J. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid–term mass trauma intervention: empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), 283–315.

Masten, A. S., & Obradovic, J. (2008). Disaster preparation and recovery: lessons from research on resilience in human development. Ecology and Society, 13(1).

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