Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, was once asked what she considered to be the first signs of civilization in a culture. Her answer was not the expected weapon, clay pot, or grinding stone. It was a healed femur.

She went on to explain that a healed femur bone is evidence that someone cared, someone was willing to do the injured person’s hunting and feed him or her. This individual was kept alive over an extended period of time, allowing the bone to heal. In one sense, then, civilization is empathy.

Empathy can be a powerful emotion. A 2015 study shows that our brains process empathy for another person’s pain similarly to how we process the experience of our own physical pain. Another study found that brain patterns associated with these feelings are consistent between different individuals and predictable.

Now, a recently published study1 shows that empathy for vulnerable people motivates us to use face masks and keep social distance. It is a motivation that could help to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“We show that empathy for the most vulnerable is an important factor, and that it can be used actively to combat the pandemic. I believe that policy makers can use our new knowledge in their efforts to get more people to follow the guidelines and ultimately save lives,”

said Stefan Pfattheicher, an associate professor at Aarhus University, who led the study.

A Clear Relationship

The researchers tested the relationship between study participants' empathy and their attitude to social distancing, using two questionnaire-based studies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. In one study, participants were asked, on a scale from 1 to 5, how concerned they are about those who are most vulnerable to the coronavirus. They were then asked about the extent to which they themselves avoid social contact due to the coronavirus.

The researchers found a clear relationship - the higher the degree of empathy, the higher the focus on reducing social contact.

Just as important, the study shows that it is possible to induce empathy among people, and thereby also make more people willing to keep social distance and wear face masks.

Increased Empathy

In separate experiments, the researchers investigated the differences in participants' willingness to follow the two pandemic recommendations, depending on whether they are just informed about the effect of the two initiatives, or whether they are also presented with a vulnerable person. In the two experiments, the participants were presented with people who, each in their own way, have been affected by and suffer from the coronavirus. There were also control groups who only received information about the effect of keeping social distance and wearing face masks.

The conclusion was clear again - the participants who received the story about people suffering from the coronavirus reported a higher degree of empathy. They also had 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. 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,”

said Pfattheicher.


  1. Pfattheicher, Stefan, Laila Nockur, Robert Böhm, Claudia Sassenrath, and Michael Bang Petersen. The Emotional Path to Action: Empathy Promotes Physical Distancing and Wearing of Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic Psychological Science, September 29, 2020. doi:10.1177/0956797620964422 ↩︎


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