Sometimes Altruism Needs to Be Enforced

Controlling COVID-19 requires a selflessness that comes naturally. Ironically, we still have to coerce it.

Illustration of a fist with ancient art inside
Jacques-Louis David / Musée du Louvre; The Atlantic

The coronavirus pandemic has engendered lots of altruism. This is welcome but also unsurprising, since a group of people facing a threat typically relies on collective action to keep self-interest in check. Cooperation and generosity are part of our evolutionary heritage, and they usually require only light pressure to foster. Most people are happy to wear a mask in a hospital or on an airplane, for example, because they want to be seen as neighborly.

This winter, COVID-19 will continue to demand our attention, and we’ve unfortunately exhausted our store of soft-touch options to rouse those inner angels. More will be required if we are to leverage one of our greatest natural advantages as a species: the impulse to help others.

From the start of the pandemic, we have seen a mix of selfless and abhorrent behaviors. A puzzling feature of human nature is that they exist in a delicate balance.

On the one hand, Americans have donated their time to sew cloth masks, staff food banks, and comfort those struggling with loneliness. A group in Minnesota matched hundreds of volunteers with people who needed child care. Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn who had recovered from COVID-19 broke their Sabbath to drive through the night to Pennsylvania hospitals in order to donate their serum. Many employers continued to pay their employees even though they were not at work. And despite the financial stress of the pandemic, recent statistics show that charitable giving actually rose 2 percent in 2020, compared with 2019.

Doctors and nurses—as well as members of less heralded professions, such as custodians, grocery-store clerks, and home health aides—have assumed personal risk of infection and death. And the extraordinarily rapid development of vaccines and medicines to treat COVID-19 has reflected an extensive and generous sharing of knowledge by scientists around the world, as well as the volunteerism of study participants.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen that a serious pandemic can inflame ignoble tendencies. In the United States, the coronavirus pandemic has unleashed all sorts of antisocial behaviors, including people coughing and spitting on masked shoppers and politicians targeting Asian Americans or Latin American immigrants. We’ve seen fistfights break out in grocery stores, during school-board meetings, and on planes over infection-control regulations. And from those who are unwilling to get vaccinated, we’ve seen steady resistance to helping their more vulnerable neighbors.

Some people are clearly more altruistic than others. But even these super-cooperators can’t do all the heavy lifting alone. Haphazard or individual-level efforts to be helpful are rarely sufficient to keep cooperation going in a larger population. For one thing, a cooperator surrounded by noncooperators will usually stop being helpful—for who wants to be a chump? Yet devolving to an “every man for himself” dynamic is injurious to all. That’s no way to fight a plague.

And so the survival of our species has depended on the evolution of innate responses to keep these so-called free riders mostly in check, to make sure that there are enough people willing to run into burning buildings to save lives and a lot fewer who light fires. Evolution has equipped us with tools to help tip the balance toward cooperation. And we need to use all of those tools in our current predicament.

What are these responses shaped by our evolution? The first is that cooperation is more likely when a group faces a shared enemy. That we already have, in the form of this nasty virus.

Another is that people are more likely to cooperate if they anticipate future interactions with the same people. This is one reason people are likely to wear a mask at work with familiar colleagues but skip it when they shop in a grocery store.

Repeated interactions also tend to foster the reciprocation of kindness, and hence encourage more and more altruistic behavior. Vaccine and mask mandates by companies, schools, and other places where people see one another repeatedly are sound practices not only because they indicate respect for customers and employees, but also because they promote the reciprocal altruism that leads to optimal public-health practice more generally.

Furthermore, people are typically more willing to follow rules regarding physical distancing or masking if they understand them primarily as a way to help others. Our ongoing public-health messaging can exploit this quality. One study evaluated whether it was more effective to tell people, “Follow these steps to avoid getting the coronavirus,” or to tell them, “Follow these steps to avoid spreading the coronavirus.” It turns out that the emphasis on the public threat of the virus is at least as effective as, and sometimes more effective than, the emphasis on the personal threat—though perhaps not as much for the minority of selfish holdouts.

But what if individual motivations and gentle forces are not enough? Here, the interpersonal nature of contagious disease—namely that individual actions that increase or reduce one’s personal risk at the same time increase or reduce the risks one imposes on others—creates the collective-action problem in the first place and justifies more forceful, even coercive, measures by schools, work sites, and the government. Because we have not yet been able to respond as effectively to the pandemic as we must, we may need to deploy them.

One evolutionary feature that fosters cooperative behavior is the human inclination toward what I call “mild hierarchy,” a kind of social order that is neither too unequal nor too egalitarian, neither too punitive nor too permissive. To assure that if person A is kind to person B (e.g., by wearing a mask, staying home when sick, or getting vaccinated), then person B will reciprocate, we have evolved the capacity and desire for centralized enforcement—precisely so as to tamp down on selfishness and abuse. We tolerate policing by our leaders (up to a point) because it’s a more efficient way of encouraging collective action than a pitchfork at a neighbor’s door or one-on-one attempts to enforce reciprocity.

We also practice punishment and ostracism, both of which can, in the right circumstances, foster cooperation. Shunning transgressors comes naturally to us precisely because, in our ancestral past, it was useful for our collective survival. Research studies in labs around the world, including my own, have shown the necessity of such pressures to avoid a tragedy of the commons, where all suffer because of free riding. For instance, in one study in my lab involving hundreds of people arranged into dozens of groups, the ability of people to shun those who did not act altruistically helped reinforce good behavior in everyone.

Of course, peer pressure or the fear of ostracism can also compel people to take actions that injure themselves or their own communities. There has been a spate of sad cases recently of conservative media figures dying from COVID-19 after denouncing the vaccines or other public-health measures in order to signal membership in their political group. People working together must still be aiming at healthy objectives. This is another way in which leadership is crucial: to set worthy goals.

A broad collective effort will be required to avoid yet more deaths and virus-induced shutdowns this winter. Given that the actions of some people can put the health of others at risk, we must be willing to leverage the full range of our evolutionary impulses toward cooperation. Some of these less appealing evolutionary capacities for enforcing cooperation—which sounds oxymoronic—may be required.

Indeed, President Joe Biden announced a broad series of interventions last month, including requiring all employers with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccination and doing the same for federal workers and others. “We’re in a tough stretch, and it could last for a while,” Biden said in an address from the White House. “What makes it incredibly more frustrating is we have the tools to combat COVID-19, and a distinct minority of Americans, supported by a distinct minority of elected officials, are keeping us from turning the corner.”

From the viewpoint of our innate capacities for cooperation, both Biden’s practical responses and his emotional framing are to be expected. We do not need to see these actions in a negative or even authoritarian light. They are not simply the workings of our political system. They are rooted in our ancient past, helping us survive.

Seen from an evolutionary perspective, putting our thumb on the scale of the COVID-19 response allows our natural impulse toward goodness to flourish. And such efforts are in keeping with our fundamental instincts to be altruistic and cooperative in the first place. As Albert Camus argued in his novel The Plague, “What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of the plague as well. It helps men and women to rise above themselves.”