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Hate Can't Kill a Virus, Please Be Kind to Others

The United Nations Chief says this pandemic is unleashing a tsunami of hate.

“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”
― Randy Pausch, professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University

The coronavirus pandemic is definitely a bad thing. Sadly, people can make bad things even worse than they already are. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the coronavirus pandemic is unleashing “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”[1]. He also provided several examples of how this pandemic is quickly becoming a “human rights crisis.”

• “Anti-foreigner sentiment has surged online and in the streets. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have spread, and COVID-19-related anti-Muslim attacks have occurred.”

• Migrants and refugees “have been vilified as a source of the virus — and then denied access to medical treatment.”

• “With older persons among the most vulnerable, contemptible memes have emerged suggesting they are also the most expendable.”

• “And journalists, whistleblowers, health professionals, aid workers, and human rights defenders are being targeted simply for doing their jobs.”

Why do people act this way? People divide the world into “us” and “them” categories, with “us” being the groups they belong to and “them” being the groups they do not belong to. People tend to show favoritism to their own groups, and hostility to other groups.

A European research team led by Henri Tajfel decided to conduct a program of studies that would determine when people would begin to show this ingroup favoritism and outgroup hostility. They formed the following research plan: They would start out with groups that were so meaningless that people would not show any ingroup favoritism; then they would gradually add in other variables (such as the presumption that the group members were similar to each other, or had to depend on each other, or had common goals) and see at what point the ingroup favoritism started to occur. But their research plan failed—because the research team could never get to the starting point. They were unable to make a group that seemed so arbitrary or trivial that no ingroup favoritism was found. If the experimenters did nothing more than flip a coin to assign participants to a “red team” and a “blue team,” the red team thought they were superior to the blue team (and vice versa).[2] This automatic preference for members of one’s own group, even when group membership is randomly determined, is called the minimal group effect.[3]

These findings suggest that people are naturally predisposed to dividing the world up into “us” and “them” and to adopting a negative stance toward “them.” Sadly, prejudice and discrimination naturally follow from this predisposition. Furthermore, this predisposition can make a bad situation like a global pandemic even worse. For example, ingroup members tend to blame the outgroup members for starting the pandemic, such as blaming Chinese people for the virus.

How does one fight against this natural tendency? Learning about the minimal group effect is the first step. Understanding this natural tendency can help you guard against showing hostility to outgroups.

“And I ask everyone, everywhere, to stand up against hate, treat each other with dignity, and take every opportunity to spread kindness,” Guterres said. It is always important to treat people kindly, but even more so during a pandemic. Let’s not make bad things worse by hating others.


[1] Lederer, E. M. (May 8, 2020). UN chief says pandemic is unleashing a 'tsunami of hate.' Associated Press. Retrieved from…

[2] Billig, M., & Tajfel, H. (1973). Social categorization and similarity in intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 3(1), 27–52.

[3] Locksley, A., Ortiz, V., & Hepburn, C. (1980). Social categorization and discriminatory behavior: Extinguishing the minimal intergroup discrimination effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39(5), 773–783.