Magdalena Adamus: “Courage was needed by those who helped.”

29 Apr 2022 Jana Sosnová

Why did people risk their own health on behalf of others during the pandemic? What motivated them when their own wellbeing was at stake? Economic psychologist Magdalena Adamus, a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship alumna and a long-term collaborator with the Faculty of Economics and Administration, talks about prosocial behaviour during the pandemic, human personality and conspiracy theories.

How did prosocial behaviour develop during the Covid-19 pandemic?

We saw from the very beginning of the pandemic that people cared about those around them. They were concerned not only about their closest family members, but also about neighbours and friends. Some people shopped for those most vulnerable. Meanwhile, others were paying for lunches they never ate to help their favourite restaurants to survive. Generally, people showed they care and helped depending on the situation.

Which types of prosocial behaviour did you focus on in your research?

In our study, we focused on the most common forms of helping behaviour that could be considered prosocial: caring for others, providing emotional support, limiting purchases or unnecessary meetings. Those types of behaviour included calling to check on the family and friends, shopping for the sick or finding alternative ways of meeting even when face-to-face meetings were allowed under certain conditions. All these types of behaviour may seem simple, however, during the pandemic they required extensive planning and organization as well as considerable sensitivity to the needs of other people.

Why do people behave prosocially?

Our main idea was that people who behave prosocially may share some common characteristics, and we posed a question of what those characteristics would be. In existing literature, we found that three main attributes – collectivism, future orientation and social motivations – could play important role in explaining why people behave prosocially. However, we found no studies investigating those characteristics in combination, and this is where we discovered a niche. In our research, we used a construct of outward orientation combining those three characteristics.

How did you define outward orientation?

We defined it as a tendency to go beyond narrowly understood present-oriented self-interest of an individual. Generally, collectively minded people tend to see themselves as embedded in their group and, therefore, show care for the other members. People who are future oriented show a heightened understanding of potential future losses and regret caused by decisions made in the present or, instead, by negligence. Finally, people who have prosocial motivations found multiple reasons for behaving prosocially, for example, they can gain benefits or pleasure from doing something useful for others.

What is the role of Covid-related conspiracy theories in the development of prosocial behaviour?

In Slovakia, where we conducted our study, conspiracy theories are widespread. It may seem that they are loosely related to prosocial behaviour and perhaps that is true. However, some of the prosocial behaviours I already mentioned required self-imposed boundaries on behaviour, for instance, by limiting excessive purchases or in-person meetings. Even though we have no data from this particular study, we can say that people who endorsed conspiracy theories were less willing to comply with the containment measures. Naturally, we can hardly expect them to voluntarily restrict their behaviour when they believe there is no reason for any restrictions at all and that the pandemic serves only the aim of limiting our civil freedoms.

Why do some people prefer to believe conspiracy theories rather than scientists or governments?

From the psychological perspective, conspiracy theories are attractive because they tend to be simple and easy to grasp. They seem in line with common sense and reasonable enough to be true. However, in reality they are false, harmful and drive people to make detrimental health-related choices, such as the decision not to get vaccinated.

Some politicians gave the impression that combating the pandemic is a matter of opinion, not science and facts. Undermining trust in science and scientific process was the gravest offense these politicians have done. This way they allowed conspiracies to flow. If everything is a matter of opinion, then conspiracy theories are equally good explanations. Lacking consistent information, people turned their attention to widely available – though highly unreliable – sources.

What is the relationship between political liberalism and prosocial behaviour?

In the pandemic context, of course, we already knew that it is highly politicized issue and that is why we asked our informants, among other things, also about their political leaning. Interestingly, we found that being liberal was related to more prosocial behaviour than being conservative.

What about personality? Are people with certain personalities less or more likely to behave prosocially?

This is a very complex question because personality has many facets. Since human personality is so complicated, psychologists are often quite convinced that some aspect of personality would be related to the phenomena they investigate. The same applies to prosocial behaviour. And we did find that more conscientious and agreeable people are more prosocial. However, there are two issues in this line of research. First, the relationship between prosocial behaviour during the pandemic and personality is rather weak. In other words, personality does not explain behaviour well enough. Secondly, personality is relatively constant throughout life, and we cannot have much hope of changing it. The same applies to the behaviour directly related to it. That is why it so important to focus on other characteristics of individuals that could be shaped more easily. Such as values, for instance.

Earlier, you mentioned motivations of people being one of the key aspects of prosocial behaviour. What exactly motivates people to risk their own safety and health on behalf of others?

Motivations can vary. Personally, I do not rule out the possibility that some people are genuine altruists. They behave prosocially regardless of inconvenience or danger. Some people are motivated by moral duties or think about potential benefits. For instance, they may feel better knowing they are doing something good, which allows them to think good things about themselves. Others may think that they are expected to behave prosocially and that they will be praised if they do so. Nevertheless, this is irrelevant from the perspective of a person who receives the help.

Moreover, we need to bear in mind one particular finding of our study: people who behaved prosocially in addition to them being outwardly oriented, showed also heightened fear of the disease. Our results, thus, show that they behaved prosocially and often risked their own health despite regarding Covid-19 as a serious disease and being afraid of contracting it. Hence, whatever their motivation was, there was something courageous in their prosocial acts.

Prosocial behaviour

Prosocial behaviour covers a wide range of human actions that are beneficial for the society. Generally, we consider as pro-social such forms of behaviour that are aimed at someone else’s wellbeing. However, they also tend to bring additional benefits to the benefactor. For instance, in the context of pro-environmental behaviour, some sustainable choices – such as turning off the lights or reducing heat – are primarily economic. People may do those things not because they think about benefits for the environment or future generations but simply because they want to save money. Consequently, they behave prosocially without having prosocial motivations. From economic perspective, both types of prosocial behaviour are equally relevant.

Foto: Jakub Zeman

Dr. Magdalena Adamus worked at the Faculty of Economics and Administration of the Masaryk University from September 2019 till August 2021 thanks to the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship. Currently, she works as a researcher at the Centre of Experimental Psychology of the Slovak Academy of Science. Her research interests cover investigating impacts of the pandemic and related conspiracy theories on financial anxiety, (mal)adaptive financial and health-related decisions and changing preferences. She also studies gender differences in the labour market as well as their sources.

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