Shortly after we began writing the last section of our book, the COVID-19 virus started spreading through the world and we had to stay at home, socially isolated. A striking result of this crisis was that science suddenly became centre stage. Instead of disparaging experts, politicians started appearing on TV, flanked by scientists, and claiming to be guided by science. The most obvious scientific input relevant to the crisis concerned the nature of the virus and mathematical modelling of how the epidemic was likely to spread. But the major problem was how to minimise the effects of the pandemic. Since we knew that the virus was highly contagious, it was necessary to reduce contact between people by instituting a ‘lockdown’ to stop it spreading. But, to understand the effect of this radical change in behaviour, we need to know something about how groups of people react when faced with threat.

This is one of the many topics explored in our book “What makes us social”, which, at last, is ready as a complete first draft.

A long standing and popular idea, associated with Thomas Hobbes,  supposes that danger brings out the worst in us. When we believe that we are faced with a severe threat, we abandon the social niceties and, being naturally competitive, fall back into “brutishness and misery”. In anticipation of such behaviour, the police and the army are often prepared for the worst kind of public disturbances.

In contrast, one of the major themes of our book is the idea that our natural state is not one of selfish competition. If anything, it is the opposite. In the dictator game, people have the option of keeping all the money to themselves without any comeback. And yet the majority will give some away. It seems that most of us always take some account of the welfare of others. The majority of us are cooperative (prosocial), rather than being competitive, or individualistic. We are naturally empathic and have an aversion to unfair behaviour.

Furthermore, prosocial behaviour is not something we have to work hard to achieve by suppressing our ‘naturally’ selfish and competitive impulses. For most of us, most of the time, this behaviour occurs automatically. We are also automatically influenced by the feelings and actions of others. And, for most of us, our behaviour becomes more prosocial when at the same time, we have to think about something else. Adding a cognitive load makes us less selfish.

We believe this also holds true for the threat of the COVID-19 virus. Of course, we will primarily think about the how we shall escape the danger, and not so much about the welfare of others. Furthermore, there is also the long-standing belief that, faced with danger, people and especially crowds will panic and revert to selfish and irrational behaviour. Indeed, whenever there is some mass disaster such as a fire in a crowded disco, we often read reports that the deaths occurred because the crowd panicked and people were crushed to death, fighting with each other to get through the exit. But, if the conclusions reached in our book are correct, we may become more prosocial, rather than more selfish under such pressure.

Actually, emergency situations do not typically give rise to collective panic. For example, 11 deaths occurred at a Who concert in 1979 attended by ~18,000 people. The press reported that the deaths were caused by panic. But statements collected afterwards (from police officers, employees, and private security guards) did not report competition between people as they tried to reach safety. Rather, people were helpful and tried to prevent others from being crushed. Likewise, numerous testimonies about behaviour after the 7th July 2005 bomb attacks on London Transport mention the help that the victims gave to each other. Selfish behaviour was rarely reported.

But how reliable are these statements given after the event? To get around this problem, Guillaume Dezecache and colleagues studied the response to the mild threat associated with entering the Haunted House ride in a fairground from photographs taken at the time of the ride. At these moments of apparent danger people gripped onto each other. They were seeking affiliation and comfort. Just as in natural disaster, people turn toward their loved ones and form clusters of familiar individuals before trying to escape.

It is not just that people seek comfort under threat of danger. They also want to help others, especially their family members. It can be difficult to get people evacuated because they wait for all their friends to get together before leaving. Even people with no previous ties will get together and experience a shared social identity as a result of the common threat . “In disasters, people are more likely to be killed by compassion than competition. They often tarry to help friends or family members”.

We can plainly see this urge to help others when we are all threatened in people’s responses to spread of COVID-19. Throughout the world, health workers have exposed themselves to danger by continuing to do their jobs, some even coming back from retirement. When the UK Government asked for volunteers to help the National Health Service (NHS), 750,000 people signed up, three times as many as were expected.

But this urge to help and to be with our families and friends is very problematic when we are asked to practice social distancing and go into isolation. If our friends are ill we want to comfort and help them, and this often involves touching and hugging. If they seem perfectly well, we don’t see why they should be isolated from us. Of course, most of us recognised and respected the reasons for going into lockdown. Still, most of us saw the reasons for the lockdown and followed the advice of the government.

Given our desire for social affiliation, the experience of lockdown is hard. But, for many of us, it was not as hard as it could have been. This is because we realised that, in our times, physical distancing need not eliminate social interactions. We can keep in touch with our friends, not only via the telephone, but also via email and social apps using the internet. Even more recent technological developments allow us to have face to face meetings using video.  The number of such meetings dramatically increased after social distancing was introduced. The day the lockdown was announced in the UK, the free remote conferencing app, Zoom, was downloaded 2.13 million times around the world, up from 56,000 a day two months earlier. At the same time, there was a dramatic rise in the number of informal mutual aid “good neighbour” organisations. These are local groups that keep volunteers in touch via social media. Shortly after the beginning of the lockdown in the UK, there were more than 4,300 such groups connecting an estimated 3 million people. In our case we were isolated at home, but we instituted daily teaching and chatting sessions with our grandchildren. And at work, our weekly seminars continued on-line and included more participants who now attended from all over the world and not just from Bloomsbury. As a result of the lockdown the number and scope of our social interactions actually increased.

And the future?

The impact of COVID-19 has been worldwide, and many believe that, after the crisis is over, the world will never be the same again. But what will this new world be like? The answer depends on the nature of human social cognition. Under the threat of the virus our prosocial nature has come to the fore and we have developed all sorts of clever new ways for interacting at a distance. At the same time governments have made available dramatically large sums of money to help those who have suddenly lost their livelihoods. But will we and our governments continue to be so prosocial when the lockdown and the immediate threat to our lives is over?

surviving lockdown

surviving lockdown

Humans have this remarkable ability to develop new tools and to discover novel and unintended ways to use these tools. And this is especially true for tools concerned with social interactions. So, one thing we are fairly confident about is that people will continue to use social media (Zoom, &c.) as they did during the lockdown. These developments for remote interactions will foster the creation of novel signals for controlling the flow of speech during group meetings and create new conventions for greeting and farewells. In consequence, remote meetings will become less cognitively taxing and even more poplar. These developments have the potential to increase the diversity of interacting groups. This will lead to more efficient social networks. This development should reduce polarisation and allow information to be shared more widely. At the same time group decision making should be improved.

The creation of norms for the use of social media may also increase our willingness and ability to sanction those who violate the norms, particularly if these norms become widely shared. It is important that the development of these new norms happens bottom-up, rather than top-down. The norms will emerge from the practice and experience of individuals in small groups. The participants in such groups are likely to enter the we-mode. The new norms will then become contagious and an essential aspect of individual reputation among networkers. At that point it will be possible for them to be imposed by governments.

One of the requirements for successful group decision-making [1] is that everyone should have the same goals. The external threat engendered by COVID-19 has, for the moment, aligned our goals. Helping the vulnerable and rewarding those who give the most help have become priorities that nearly every one shares. Our hope is that these will become defining characteristics of the sort of people we are and, thus, a reputation that needs to be guarded. We will start to feel regret and shame if we fail to uphold these principles.

So far, we have painted a rather rosy picture of how society may change as a result of COVID-19. But, sadly, other less desirable trajectories are also possible. The social solidarity we share with others seems to come at the expense of defining an out-group from which we must distinguish ourselves at all costs. Some people have started referring to COVID-19 as the Chinese virus, hinting that there is someone or some group to be blamed for its release [2]. If unchecked, such attitudes will create greater polarisation within nations and greater competition between nations.

One of the major claims we have made throughout our book is that there are distinctly different kinds of cognitive process that are arranged in a hierarchy. At the bottom, there are processes that occur automatically, without effort or thought. Some of these processes are innate, while others emerge from simple association learning. At the top, processes are critically different: they require effort and involve reasoning. Here gain is often associated with pain. Many of these processes are promoted by others and can become part of our culture. For these processes, we can often provide detailed justifications. These are not just gut feelings. It is these processes that most clearly distinguish between cultural groups.

COVID-19 and the associated lockdown have affected these effortful processes at both levels. Bottom-up effects emerge from our natural desires to be with others and to help them. Top-down effects arise when people begin to talk to each other about the new norms that are developing. And at a higher level still, top-down effects can be applied when governments start hearing what people are saying. Unfortunately, it is at this highest level that politically motivated justifications can be developed and used to inhibit our natural inclinations to help others. For example, they can be used to take advantage of our inherent attitudes to out-groups. But, fortunately, justifications can also be developed that increase cooperation as well as a healthy form of competition within and between groups. What happens after COVID-19, critically depends upon the public discourse that occurs between these bottom-up and top-down influences, and which determines the kinds of justifications that emerge and the sorts of values that are promoted.

One major factor relevant to a global change of values in our society is the continuum that goes from cheating (or free riding, as economists call it) to an active society of voluntary social work. Many societies, at present, seem to be placed near the cheating end of this continuum, and this may be because of an uncertainty about who counts as ‘our society’, i.e. people like us. This question was easy to answer when population levels were low, when families and tribes defined who you belong to, and who is your enemy. This uncertainty has brought into sharp relief the indisputable difficulty of coping with genuine crises such as climate change, risk of species extinction, and pandemics. But, precisely because of our experience with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have, for a moment, been able to experience more directly the altruistic nature of much of our social cognition. We have been able to see more people as ‘people like us’. We are optimistic that the experience of this epidemic may reset our social values in the direction of helping and away from cheating.

Image credit: Heath Robinson –  An Ideal Home No 6: sports without broad acres. Courtesy of the estate of Mrs J.C.Robinson/Pollinger Ltd/ILN/Mary Evans.

[1] And there is also a video

[2] This is not a new stratagem. When syphilis spread through Europe and beyond in the 15th century the Germans blamed the French, calling it the “French Disease.” The French blamed the Italians. The Poles blamed the Russians, the Persians blamed the Turks, the Muslims blamed the Hindus, and the Japanese blamed the Portuguese.