Social Distancing Has Made All of Us Helpers

‘We’re all sharing this experience, and that shared experience is a vast conduit to kindness and to altruism’

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
5 min readApr 17, 2020

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Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

The world is a frightening, uncertain place right now. But like Mr. Rogers said, when scary things happen, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In our current reality, helping looks different than it normally does. Instead of giving a friend a hug, bringing a neighbor soup, or volunteering in the community, it means staying home in order to flatten the curve.

Stanford psychology professor Jamil Zaki, PhD, author of the book The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, says that rather than making people act more selfishly, disasters bring out the altruistic urge in all of us. Elemental spoke with Zaki to understand how altruism is playing a role in the response to the coronavirus pandemic and find out how to strengthen feelings of empathy if you find yourself lagging.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Elemental: Things like social distancing and shelter in place don’t work unless everyone does it for the greater good. What are some of the factors that play into the decision to stay home, especially if it’s not what someone wants to do?
Jamil Zaki:
Something like social distancing — I prefer the term physical distancing — would be a collective action problem. It’s something where people have to work together and make sacrifices to assure a much more important, larger optimal outcome for a group.

I think a media narrative that we hear often is that disasters bring out the worst in people and create social disorder. Almost like our willingness to act kindly toward each other is really just a form of politeness, a tenuous act of restraint, because we’re penned in by social norms. But when those norms go away, we revert to super-selfish, almost violent animalistic urges to protect and get whatever we want.

It turns out that narrative is almost entirely backwards. During disasters, people are actually much kinder and more prosocial toward each other — not even kinder than they are cruel, but kinder than they are typically. Why is that? Disasters…

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental