Brock preliminary research finds less empathy in COVID-19 scenarios

Do stories of people experiencing hardships arising from the COVID-19 pandemic motivate others to lend a helping hand?

It turns out people aren’t as keen to get involved in a COVID scenario as they would be in a ‘normal’ environment, says a study led by Brock University researchers.

“When there is an explicit mention of the pandemic or pandemic-related need, people were not as willing to help,” says PhD Psychology student Dawn Ryan of the study she conducted with her advisor Karen Campbell, Assistant Professor of Psychology and Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging.

Ryan and Campbell have teamed up with Brendan Gaesser, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University at Albany and Daniel Schacter, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University teamed up to test out, in a pandemic situation, the well-documented concept in psychology that the likelihood of helping someone increases if you put yourself in their shoes.

The researchers conducted two studies involving online questionnaires. In the first study, the researchers presented participants with two sets of stories of people trying to cope with various challenges: one set of stories described everyday needs while the other set tied the needs specifically to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Examples of COVID-related needs include necessities such as toilet paper in short supply because of panic buying and access to childcare for health care and other essential workers.

For both sets of stories, participants were asked to judge the journalistic style of the reporting and were then asked to actively imagine helping out the people portrayed in the stories. At the end, participants rated their willingness to help the individual.

In the case of everyday needs, participants reported an increased willingness to help after they imagined the situations of those depicted in the stories.

But this didn’t occur in the COVID-related scenarios.

“We didn’t see an increase in pro-social behaviour, which suggests that maybe there isn’t an increase in empathy,” says Ryan.

The second study essentially replicated the first one but added questions designed to measure specifically how participants would help. While the team is in the process of interpreting the results, they say there may be several reasons why participants reported being less willing to assist in COVID-related situations.

The desire to help arises out of empathy, which often comes when someone puts themselves in someone else’s shoes.

“When you go through the act of imagining helping this person, the increase in empathy, or understanding more about how that individual feels, may make you more willing to act because you can essentially get a little taste of how they feel,” says Ryan.

This process of imagining, or ‘episodic simulation,’ involves being able to chart out future plans. But imagining the future involves drawing upon past experiences, says Ryan.

“It’s entirely possible that people have a difficult time imagining something because this [pandemic] is a new and novel scenario,” she says. “People may think, ‘This is something I can’t picture because I have no experience with a pandemic.’”

Also, a pandemic is fraught with many unknowns and fears, which were reflected in the research results.

“Participants also rated helping in COVID-related scenarios as more dangerous than helping in non-COVID scenarios,” says Ryan. “Taken together, this suggests that explicit mention of the pandemic is likely influencing people’s willingness to help those in need.”

Ryan says she and her team may conduct a third study to see if willingness to help changes as the nature of the pandemic changes.

She hopes the research will form the basis of recommendations on how to move forward in times of extreme events such as pandemics.

“Whether it’s increasing healthy behaviour on an individual level, donating or volunteering your time, or compliance with social distancing rules in general, our aim is to not only identify the cognitive mechanisms behind this phenomenon, but also to find a way to encourage people to engage in these prosocial behaviours so that we can get through this together,” says Ryan.

The team expects to release the final results of their research, which is being funded by the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Council for Research in the Social Sciences (CRISS) and the Vice-President, Research’s Research Training Award, sometime in the fall.

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