Imagine seeing someone sneezing in public without covering their mouth. Under the best of circumstances, many of us would view this as highly improper behaviour, and naturally, even more so during a global pandemic involving a highly contagious, potentially life-threatening disease. But when people are more concerned about their health and safety, are they also more critical of any potential misdeed they observe in others?
In our new paper published in Evolutionary Psychology, “Disease and Disapproval: Covid-19 concern is related to greater moral condemnation”, we found that people who are particularly worried about contracting Covid-19 are harsher in their judgments of all kinds of immoral acts, not just behaviors related to disease or contamination.
Across three studies between March and May 2020, participants who reported high worry about Covid-19 rated various questionable behaviours to be especially reprehensible. To some extent this can be expected for violations that relate directly to exposing others to a health risk. But an important question was whether worried participants would also be critical of individuals who violated norms in other domains. To look at this we drew on Moral Foundations Theory, which proposes that people are concerned with others’ safety, fair treatment, devotion to allies, respect for leadership and tradition, and their own physical health. Conversely, this means that people are driven to avoid suffering, pinpoint cheaters, condemn traitors, and avoid contaminants. Together, these moral foundations have helped humans survive across diverse and perilous environments.
We presented participants with a range of situations encompassing these five moral domains and assessed scenarios involving: Betrayal and therefore a violation of the loyalty foundation — e.g. “You see a man leaving his family business to go work for their main competitor”; Contamination and therefore a violation of the purity foundation — e.g. “You see a teenage male in a dorm bathroom secretly using a stranger's toothbrush”; Disrespect and therefore a violation of the authority foundation — e.g. “You see a teaching assistant talking back to the teacher in front of the classroom”.
Participants then responded to a question taken from the popular public opinion and data company, YouGov, to assess their subjective perceived risk of catching the Covid-19 disease: “Taking into consideration both your risk of contracting it and the seriousness of the illness, how worried are you personally about experiencing coronavirus?” Response options included “Not at all worried”, “Not too worried”, “Somewhat worried” and “Very worried”. We subsequently split the sample into two groups — those who responded “Not at all concerned” or “Not too concerned” (labelled “less worried”), and those who responded “Somewhat worried” or “Very worried” (labelled “worried”).
We predicted that individuals who were more worried about contracting Covid-19 would express more disapproval when evaluating moral violations than individuals with relatively lower worry. And this is indeed what we found. Those who were more worried were more critical of a wide range of scenarios such as an employee being rude to their boss, a political leader making unkind remarks about their own country, and a person committing bribery to jump ahead of a queue. In essence, people who were highly concerned with contracting Covid-19 were especially critical of moral infractions.
We also included a measure of political orientation, to rule out the possibility that this might account for differences in moral judgments and worry about Covid-19. This was important because it has previously been found that, first, politically conservative individuals are more preoccupied with disease avoidance, and second, that in the United States (U.S.), where we conducted the studies, there were distinct differences across the political spectrum to the extent in which Covid-19 was perceived to be a serious health threat. When we controlled participants’ political orientation, the results still held. That is, the differences in moral judgments between worried vs. less worried participants were not driven by whether a person identified as a Liberal or a Conservative.
We suggest that a generalised overreaction to danger may be the reason for the increase across a wide range of potentially immoral behaviours. People who are highly worried about catching a deadly illness may be exceptionally sensitive to all kinds of threats — not only the danger from the disease itself, but also from people who behave in ways that are unfair, duplicitous, insubordinate, and so on.
Additionally, we also found suggestive evidence that people became more judgmental as the pandemic continued. That is, compared to the participants we surveyed in March 2020, those whom we surveyed in May 2020 showed a tendency to be harsher towards others. This may be due to people’s protracted exposure to Covid-19, and the increased sense of threat they may have experienced over time.
Importantly, we did this work more than one year ago, as the pandemic started to take hold across the world. At the time of our first study Covid-19 outbreaks in the U.S. were largely localised in Washington State, with 904 documented cases. Pandemic living conditions, including lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and border closures had only started to be implemented. Today, there have been more than 33,378,096 confirmed cases, including 597,952 deaths, in the U.S., and 173,685,096 cases and 3,738,708 deaths, worldwide.
It is possible that vigilance for misbehaviour has increased even more, suggesting that we apply even greater scrutiny to the actions and intentions of others. This could result in misunderstandings and interpersonal conflicts. As is the case with many biases and preconceptions, being aware that we may fall prey to them is an important step to counteracting their undue influence in everyday life.
Now, as we continue to live in this dramatically changed world, people may experience an ever increasing level of fatigue. As has been demonstrated in other contexts, this may lead to reduced cognitive capacity. It is possible that people feel especially vulnerable and weary after experiencing a relentless physical health risk since the start of the pandemic. This may be crucial to bear in mind as policies are implemented to guide people out of lockdowns.
About the author
Dr Simone Schnall, Visiting Fellow
Dr. Simone Schnall is a Reader in Experimental Social Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and Director of the Cambridge Body, Mind and Behaviour Laboratory. She previously held appointments at Harvard University, the University of Southern California and the University of Virginia. Her research explores ... Learn more
About the author
Rob Henderson is a PhD student in Psychology and Gates Scholar at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on how peripheral factors and individual differences influence moral judgments.