by Athena Aktipis
It was only three months ago, but it feels like much longer. When we started this project, my kids' schools were still open, my work meetings took place in person, and I still greeted my friends with hugs. On one of the last 'normal' days of my life, I greeted my friend and colleague, Peter Todd, with open arms. He came to visit ASU and meet with my lab. We chatted in my office in hushed voices about what was then 'just' an epidemic. We realized we were on the same page - that we both saw something serious on the horizon. That was on March 2. If we could start collecting data now - he and I thought - then we could see how COVID-19 was affecting everyone as COVID-19 progressed.
In retrospect, we saw it coming. And so did the members of my lab that took this project and ran with it. Peter and I talked with my lab about the project that same day, and my graduate student Jessica Ayers was enthusiastic about taking the lead with the study design and data collection. She designed the study, submitted the IRB, and we requested a rush on the approval. Just four days later on March 6, we started collecting data. We asked 497 people from around the world about their willingness to help people, their feelings of interdependence with others and a lot of other questions. And a few days later, on March 11, WHO declared a pandemic. We collected our second round of data just a few days after that.
We collected data for a total of 4 time points over the next month, with the same participants each time, which allowed us to look at how people's responses changed. My other graduate student, Diego Guevara-Beltran, used a technique called multilevel modeling which basically lets us look at how the same person's score changed over the time, and also lets us see how consistent those changes are across people.
For cooperation and helping, people's ratings for some of our measures of cooperation and helping went down, some went up and some stayed the same. People's willingness to let a neighbor to live in their house temporarily didn't change, but interestingly people's willing to let somebody who is not a citizen of one’s country live in their house actually went up (a total increase of .33 on a 7 point scale). But people's endorsement of the statement that helping someone in need “is the right thing to do” decreased over time towards both neighbors (-.42) and citizens of other countries (-.36) .
We also looked at how people's perceptions of their interdependence with others changed over time. We found that perceived interdependence went up by most measures. People's agreement with the statement "When my neighborhood succeeds, I feel good" went up (.36), but their agreement with the same statement towards "all of humanity" didn't change over time. We did find an increase in people's agreement with the statement that "My neighborhood and I rise and fall together," (.75) and "All of humanity and I rise and fall together" (.36). One thing that was really surprising was that people's ratings of interdependence with all of humanity were actually higher than with their neighborhoods. So people might not be quite as locally focused as is often assumed - they are reporting that the feel more interdependence with all of humanity than just with their local neighborhoods.
When we broke down the results by whether people had a medical condition that would put them at greater risk for COVID-19, we saw an interesting pattern. People with such a medical condition increased dramatically in their ratings of "All of humanity and I rise and fall together" over the course of the pandemic.
So what do we make of all of this? Well, the picture is a little messy. We saw decreases in some measures of cooperation and increases in others. People's perceived interdependence with others largely increased, and was surprisingly higher towards all of humanity than towards neighborhoods. Most of the demographic variables that we looked at didn't have significant effects on people's responses. If you want to learn more about our study, you can read the preprint we posted on PsyArXiv.
This is just one small piece of a much larger study looking at how COVID-19 is changing us. We on the Cooperation in the Apocalypse research team have been meeting every week, talking about our findings, how to analyze our data and future questions to look at. It is really fun to have such an interdisciplinary team spanning psychology, anthropology, medicine, the arts, humanities and post-disaster response. The members of our research team don't share the same views about human nature either. Some of us are more cynical about human behavior in times of crisis, others are more optimistic.
My personal view is that apocalyptic times can bring out the best in us, as long as we aren't worried that others are going to try to take advantage of our willingness to cooperate. And I also believe that we need a radically interdisciplinary approach and cooperation among diverse scholars in order to do the research that is needed to understand human behavior in times of crisis. It is too early to say whether COVID-19 has brought all of humanity together. But COVID-19 has certainly brought us together as a research team, and it is connecting us with other groups who are working on similar questions. From my perspective, I'm seeing a lot of cooperation in the apocalypse.