Is the Pandemic Making Us Kinder?

The experience of disaster may motivate people to create a better way of living.

Posted May 22, 2020

August de Richelieu/Pexels
Is the pandemic making us kinder?
Source: August de Richelieu/Pexels

How has your life changed since the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease? Have you been suffering from the dire consequences of severe toilet roll scarcity?

On a more serious note, you may have been forced to stop working or start homeschooling your children. Maybe you have been suffering from loneliness, anxiety or depression. Perhaps you’ve even encountered severe physical illness or death. There’s no doubt about it—the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many members of the global society to confront unprecedented challenges. What’s more, we are likely to be grappling with the consequences of the disaster for many months or even years to come.

However, even in the midst of tragedy, it is possible to find a silver lining. As millions of people have been struggling to stay safe and adapt to the new circumstances, society has seen a surge in acts of kindness and generosity—both big and small. Let me give a personal example: Stuck in temporary accommodation while waiting to complete our house move after the U.K. lockdown, my husband and I have been amazed by the kindness of our landlords and friends, who have taken turns in doing our laundry and providing us with home-cooked food.

Similarly, many elderly people in self-isolation have found themselves spoilt with generous doorstep deliveries of groceries by relatives or even strangers. People have started volunteering to support the strained health services, and many companies have been donating goods or services to the most vulnerable members of society. Did you know, for example, that many fitness companies have been offering free online yoga and exercise classes during the pandemic? Indeed, reports of kindness appear to be at an all-time high, and dedicated websites share ideas of how to best support each other in this time of need.

What is Kindness?

Human kindness is by no means a new phenomenon. It refers to selfless or “altruistic” behaviour, which is predominantly motivated by the wish to help others and often comes at some personal cost. It can include a large range of actions such as charitable donations, voluntary work, or help offered to strangers.

However, in the context of human evolution, where only the “fittest” of competitors survive natural selection, the idea of selfless acts seems somewhat counterintuitive. Why would anybody spend precious resources and time helping others when they could be investing in their own well-being?

As reviewed in a recent article, “Darwin’s puzzle of kindness” may have a perfectly rational explanation. Indeed, it appears likely that several evolutionary aspects have promoted the development of altruism in human beings. One dominant idea maintains that kindness is motivated by the desire to protect the group or species. The motivation to support the group may be particularly strong in cases of closer relatives and offspring, who share many of the individual’s own genes and are likely to pass them on for generations to come. Selfless behaviour, therefore, helps to strengthen the group and the own gene pool, thus contributing to its long-term survival.

Another explanation of human kindness is that of reciprocal altruism. True to the saying “Do a good deed for another and the favour will be returned,” people are frequently motivated to show kindness in the hope that the other person will reciprocate at a later point in time. Considerations of reciprocity may even play a role in one-off interactions where people help complete strangers, whom they never expect to encounter again. In those cases, “indirect reciprocity” may come into play, where kind individuals engage in selfless action in front of casual bystanders, and thereby build an altruistic reputation. This reputation may help them receive more positive treatment (“indirect reciprocity”) in the future, because people are more inclined to help the kinder members of society.

Do Disasters Promote Kindness?

Good news—the above analysis suggests that kindness is a common human trait, which may be deeply rooted in the biological processes of evolution. However, what about the claims of increased kindness during the COVID-19 pandemic? Is there any scientific evidence for a rise in altruistic behaviours during natural disasters, threats, and emergencies?

Surprisingly, a vast body of psychology research shows that adverse circumstances and severe trauma can indeed bring out the best in people. Consider the following examples: A large surge of helping behaviour was observed following the 9/11 terror attacks. After Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in 2005, charitable donations for the New Orleans victims reached unprecedented levels. Following the 2009 Victorian Bushfires in Australia, altruistic blood donations by the local population saw a sharp increase. Studies of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami indicated a sudden surge in community support during the aftermath.

However, the perhaps most interesting finding is that increased kindness following disasters may not be limited to efforts of restoring the status quo. It could, in fact, extend far beyond the original disaster context. Research conducted after a destructive storm in Belgium, for example, showed that it wasn’t just local acts of kindness towards the storm victims that increased after the disaster. Instead, a more general surge of altruism was observed and people were found to be more generous at a global scale. More specifically, the amount of charitable donations for the unrelated fight of an African famine by Belgian citizens peaked shortly after the disaster. It thus appears that one-off emergencies can have large psychological spill-over effects and boost the overall levels of kindness both locally and internationally.

All these findings bode well in the current context of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps, the global community will emerge stronger, kinder and more united after overcoming the current challenges? But why is it that we observe these positive trends in human behaviour?

Reasons for Kindness Following Disasters

Adverse circumstances, trauma, and suffering create a novel living situation for many individuals, which then appears to warrant exceptional behaviour. Researchers have studied the transformative power of disasters for decades, and book author Rebecca Solnit argues that “disaster throws us into the temporary utopia of a transformed human nature and society.” In this context, the term utopia refers to a desire to create a better way of living, and acts of extreme kindness may achieve just that. Additionally, previous studies showed that engagement in altruistic behaviour during disasters may not so much depend on standard personality traits. Instead, they may reflect an individual’s predisposition to survival. People scoring high in problem-solving and leadership skills, for example, may be the ones to offer the most support.

The current trends for mutual support, therefore, seem to follow a general psychological pattern and may be motivated by a desire for survival and the wish to create a better world in the aftermath of the disaster. What are your personal experiences of kindness during the COVID-19 pandemic? Please share them in the comments below!