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The COVID-19 Pandemic as a Social and Moral Dilemma

Studies have shown that we trust leaders who make impartial moral decisions.

Key points

  • Our responses to the pandemic can be seen as a social dilemma, wherein we are playing cooperative games.
  • Levels of trust tend to be different across countries; trust in institutions is essential for abiding by health rules during pandemics.
  • A recent study showed that trust in strangers was not related to our pandemic-related behaviors, such as social distancing.
  • Another study showed that leaders endorsing utilitarian decisions with impartial beneficence are viewed as more trustworthy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been very interesting as a topic of study for social scientists, including psychologists. Even after numerous restrictions, we have often seen policies fail—whether it be opening up too soon or closing down too late, or just being optimistic about people behaving when they need to behave.

Social scientists, on the other hand, have been cautiously pessimistic about human behavior during the pandemic. We know, for example, that managing the spread of diseases like COVID-19 is basically a cooperation game and, therefore, is a social dilemma. Think about it—pandemic-related health behaviors like social distancing and masking are very difficult to do at the individual level, but this needs to be done for the collective good!

Add to this the problem about who we think of when we think about the collective good. For example, are we considering only our immediate family, are we thinking of our friends and neighbours whom we interact with often, or are we thinking of our city, our state, our country? Additionally, such a social dilemma also depends on how much we trust each other as well as our leaders. For example, a recent study showed that the more U.S. Americans trust their leaders, the more they would engage in recommended behaviors such as handwashing.

Felipe Esquivel Reed/Wikimedia Commons
The COVID-19 pandemic can be thought of as a cooperative game or a social dilemma.
Source: Felipe Esquivel Reed/Wikimedia Commons

Leadership, trust, and cooperation

The effects of trust have been found at the societal level as well. In other words, previous studies have found that in societies where we do not trust strangers, a social dilemma is solved by implementing sanctioning systems, such as a high fine or severer punishment. On the other hand, if a society has high levels of trust in strangers and cooperation, the defectors are less likely to be monitored and sanctioned. However, a recently published paper, when looking at 41 countries, did not find this. Specifically, their results did not show that COVID-19 responses were affected by country-level differences in cooperation or trust.

On the other hand, in public health situations like Ebola and Swine Flu, trust in leaders predicts citizen compliance. Trust in medical institutions has also been shown to impact compliance with vaccination and health behaviors during previous epidemics. Trust in leaders during the pandemic may depend on how they solve moral dilemmas.

For instance, previous work has indicated that those who endorse utilitarian principles are seen as less moral and less trustworthy. That is, those who only think about the consequences of their actions (consequentialism) rather than one’s obligations and rights (deontology) are often thought of as less trustworthy. In other words, if you thought that it is OK to sacrifice a few older people to save the life of many younger people, and therefore our leaders should prioritize the care of younger people, you may be thought of as less trustworthy. On the other hand, if you think that everyone who is eligible should get vaccinated, rather than prioritizing some over the other, you may be considered more warm and trustworthy.

Terry Johnston/Wikimedia Commons
Trust forms an important part of our social world and how we respond to others.
Source: Terry Johnston/Wikimedia Commons

Another way to look at utilitarianism is whether we want to harm innocent people in maximizing utility or whether all individuals are thought of as equally important. In other words, there are two dimensions to utilitarianism: instrumental harm and impartial beneficence. Instrumental harm implies that we are willing to cause some harm to maximize the greater good. For example, if we are in a position where we must kill one person to save multiple people, we must harm that one person so that others are saved. On the other hand, impartial beneficence implies that we must maximize the well-being of everyone on the planet equally. That is, we are not impartial to someone like our parents, but think of everyone equally.

Another recent study showed that across 22 countries and six continents, leaders who endorsed utilitarian views with impartial beneficence were trusted more, compared to those who endorsed utilitarian views with instrumental harm. Though there were differences in the magnitude of the effect, the finding was comparatively consistent and generalizable across countries. In this study, an example of an instrumental harm dilemma was whether one believed that one’s country should maintain a severe lockdown until an effective vaccine is developed, or whether restrictions should be eased. On the other hand, an example of impartial beneficence was whether vaccines and PPEs manufactured in one’s home country should be reserved for its citizens or whether they should be sent out so that well-being is maximized.

Lomoint/Wikimedia Commons
Utilitarianism argues that we should care about the consequences of our actions, and that we should maximize the greater good.
Source: Lomoint/Wikimedia Commons

What do these studies tell us about human behavior?

In a way, our behaviors generally are rather predictable—we do want to maximize well-being and trust leaders who are relatively impartial. We also make moral decisions in response to the social situations and relationships around us. For example, would you miss your best friend’s engagement party because you promised a distant acquaintance that you would help them with their child’s homework? This would be a situation where impartial beneficence would be frowned upon.

It is also important that we are able to trust people around us in order to survive our social world. Trust is, after all, key to forming and maintaining relationships.

This post was written by Arathy Puthillam, at the Department of Psychology at Monk Prayogshala, India. Her research interests lie at the intersections of social, moral, and political psychology, as well as meta-science and methodology in psychology.