Covid-19: How to get mask and distancing rebels to conform – induce empathy

  • The more empathetic we are, the higher the chances of us complying with Covid-19 safety protocols
  • This is according researchers of a recent study
  • The researchers believe that this knowledge can help save lives, and that empathy should be considered in communication initiatives

They say that empathy is at the heart of what it means to be human. In the findings of a new study, it could also save lives.

The study’s researchers, from Aarhus University, Denmark, have found that having empathy for vulnerable people at risk of Covid-19 (such as the elderly and those with comorbidities) means that we are more likely to maintain physical distancing and use face masks, ultimately helping to stop the spread of the new coronavirus.

"We show that empathy for the most vulnerable is an important factor, and that it can be used actively to combat the pandemic,” said study co-author, Stefan Pfattheicher, an associate professor at the Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences at Aarhus BSS, Aarhus University. 

“I believe that policymakers can use our new knowledge in their efforts to get more people to follow the guidelines – and ultimately save lives,” he added.

The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.

Empathy can be induced in people

Empathy can be simply defined as the capacity to perceive and process emotions and experiences of others, in a way that leads to concern, and typically a compassionate response, explains Helen Riess, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University.

For the study, the research team initially tested the relationship between study participants' empathy and their attitude to physical distancing.

The test was done via two questionnaire-based studies in the US, the UK, and Germany.

Participants were asked to rate their level of concern for those most vulnerable to the coronavirus on a scale of one to five. Following this, they were asked about the degree to which they would personally avoid social contact due to the virus.

The relationship is clear, the authors found: the higher the degree of empathy, the greater the focus on reducing social contact, they wrote.

An equally interesting finding, they commented, was that it is possible to induce empathy among people, and consequently make them more willing to maintain Covid-19 safety protocols, such as wearing face masks.

Inducing empathy in people

In a two-part experiment consisting of a control group, the researchers tested participants’ willingness to comply with two recommendations, depending on whether they have solely been informed about the effect of these two recommendations, or whether they are presented with someone at risk of severe Covid-19 disease or death.

The evidence was clear: When participants received a story about people suffering from Covid-19, they reported a higher degree of empathy, and a greater willingness to physically distance and use face masks.

"Our results suggest that we need stories of real people suffering. It's not enough just to tell us that we must keep a distance and wear a face mask for the sake of vulnerable citizens in general,” commented Pfattheicher.

“If we're confronted with a specific person who is vulnerable to Covid-19, it is clear that empathy is strengthened, and that we are more likely to follow the guidelines."

Michael Bang Petersen, a professor at the Department of Political Science, and co-author of the study, added: "Our clear recommendation is that policymakers incorporate this knowledge using empathy in their communication initiatives.”

READ | How to counter the anti-mask backlash? Empathy

READ | Brain scans reveal binge drinkers have to work harder to feel empathy for others

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Image: Getty/MirageC

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