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Did Fear of COVID-19 Bring Us Closer Together?

What new experimental evidence tells us about fear of COVID-19 and trust.

Key points

  • While there was a lot to be afraid of in 2020, a recent experiment shows that fear of COVID-19 has brought people together.
  • Research finds that those who report being afraid also tend to be less trusting. However, that relationship is a correlation, not causal.
  • The causal effect on both conservatives and liberals to an external inducement of fear is more trust of outsiders.
  • News is biased toward negativity, and while examples of distrust from 2020 abound, there are other examples of the world coming together.

There was a lot to fear in 2020. Fear of illness, fear of political upheavals, fear of social injustices. But what about fear itself? In particular, how did all the fear in 2020 affect how much we trust? That was the question my co-authors Baran Han, Inbok Rhee, Chrysostomos Tabakis and myself sought to address in an online experiment.

Joe Plenio/Pixabay
Is there cause for hope about the impacts of fear of Covid-19?
Source: Joe Plenio/Pixabay

Much to our surprise, despite all there was to fear in 2020, the impact of that fear gives us cause for hope because, in our experiment, we found that fear brought us together. Increased fear caused us to increase our trust in outsiders at a time of external threat.

Trust matters because trust is the invisible bond that holds society together. In my new book, Why Trust Matters: An Economist’s Guide to the Ties That Bind Us, I argue that the history of human civilization is really the story of how we learned to trust. We live in a society that is able to achieve great things because of the collective efforts of ever larger and more diverse groups of people. A key part of building a complex society has been the need to extend the circle of whom we trust from those in our families and immediate neighbors to those across the country and beyond.

An experiment about fear of COVID-19 and trust

Consequently, my co-authors and I were concerned about what happens to trust during a time when we have so much to fear. In particular, we were motivated by the words of a great philosopher: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda, 1999)

To that end, we ran an experiment in the Fall of 2021 during the height of the pandemic. We conducted an online survey with a representative sample of 6,000 South Koreans. Of course, the South Korean context is different from the American one, but within South Korea exists similar issues of prejudice against outsiders (in particular the Chinese), and similar controversies of conservative commentators referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus.”

We wanted to measure how attitudes toward outsiders (like refugees, or the Chinese, or foreign workers) responded to an autobiographical emotional memory task where one group was asked to recall times when they felt fear (the treatment), and another group was asked to recall times when they felt happiness (the control). We then measured people’s trust in outsiders through survey questions like “Would you want [refugees/foreign workers/Chinese immigrants] as neighbors?” and by tracking their donation decisions to groups that supported foreign workers and multi-ethnic households.

What we found was that people in our treatment group did report feeling more afraid and that people who reported more fear also reported more distrust of outsiders. But to our surprise, the treatment group that was induced to feel fear as a group was actually more trusting of outsiders than the control group that was induced to think about happy times.

To explain, we found multiple studies that show that those who hold conservative values respond more to fearful stimuli. In one, liberal and conservative subjects were scanned in an MRI machine while viewing disturbing images. The amygdalas of conservatives responded more compared to liberals. Conservatives also tend to be more wary of outsiders. In other words, there is a correlation between people who report being afraid and those who tend to be less trusting, but that relationship was due to the predispositions of those with conservative values; it isn’t causal.

Fear of an external threat can bring people together

Instead, we found that the causal effect on both conservatives and liberals to an external inducement of fear is more trust of outsiders. Fear brings people together.

Ben Ho
Fear of Covid-19 and Change in Attitudes Toward Out-groups
Source: Ben Ho

To validate the results of our experiment, we looked at how attitudes in South Korea have changed since before the pandemic. We found that age groups who reported the most feelings of fear during the pandemic (those in their 30s) also had the greatest increase in acceptance of outsiders relative to those with the least reported fear (those in their 60s and beyond)—interestingly, the same pattern of high fear in the 30s and low fear in the 60s has been reported in studies around the world. Similarly, provinces that experienced the most fear had the greatest increase in trust while provinces that experienced the least fear had the smallest increases.

Fear of COVID-19 is more likely to bring us together than to divide us. Of course, the context of our experiment is limited to one country, and the US has other political forces that are at odds with the tendencies we saw here. But the US saw record increases in trust in 2020, coupled with record increases in charitable giving. I hope our findings serve as a reminder of all the ways the world came together to face an external threat. We tend to focus on what divides us, yet 2020 was the year when Spanish and Korean language hits topped US pop charts when people clapped each evening to celebrate essential workers when charitable giving increased to record levels. While there was much to fear in 2020, our study suggests that how we respond to fear can give us hope for the future.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Behavioral Public Policy blog and I talked about this research on NPR's Planet Money Indicator Podcast.

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