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We’re actually decent people in a crisis – and stories claiming otherwise do harm

Posted: 30 Apr 2020 by Tim Harford
Undercover Economist

First there was the panic buying. Then came the selfish, reckless refusal to maintain physical distance: the beach parties in Florida and the house parties in Manchester; the 500-mile round trip to admire the Lake District and the mass sun-worshipping in London parks. And there’s worse: the scam artists; the people who use coughing as an assault; the thieves who loot medical supplies from hospitals.

These coronavirus stories perpetuate a grim view of human nature. That grim view is mistaken, a persistent and counterproductive myth. There are some terrible people in the world, and some ordinary people behaving in a terrible way, but they make headlines precisely because they are rare. Look more closely and the evidence for mass selfishness is extremely thin.

Start with the reports of panic buying, which for many people were the first glimmers of the trouble that lay in store. By the middle of March in the UK, the newspapers were full of stories about shortages of toilet paper, flour and pasta. The natural assumption was that we were a nation of locusts, stripping the supermarkets as we selfishly piled shopping carts high with produce.

But Kantar, a consultancy, told me that a mere 3 per cent of shoppers had bought “extraordinary amounts” of pasta. Most of us were merely adjusting our habits to life spent away from restaurants, sandwich bars and offices with their own loo paper. We all went shopping a bit more often, and when we did, spent a little more. No cause for collective shame, but it was enough to strain supermarket supply chains.

What about those who ignore pleas to keep their distance? Again, the misdeeds are exaggerated. Lambeth council grumpily closed Brockwell Park in south London, complaining of 3,000 visitors in a single day — not mentioning that the park might easily see 10 times that number on a normal sunny Saturday, nor that taking exercise in a park is perfectly permissible.

Exaggerating problems might drive web traffic or make zealous officials feel important, but these tales of misbehaviour are likely to be counterproductive. If we are told that others are acting selfishly, we feel inclined to be selfish, too. As Yossarian of Catch-22 put it, “I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn’t I?”

The psychologist Robert Cialdini has, with colleagues, studied this insight in the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. When visitors were told that the forest was being endangered because others were stealing petrified wood, they stole too. When tourists were told — truthfully — that the vast majority of visitors were leaving the wood untouched, they did likewise I would not be at all shocked to learn that scolding reports of sunbathing only encourage more of us to sunbathe.

The surprising truth is that people tend to be­have decently in a crisis. To the British, the all-too-familiar example is the cheerful demeanour of Londoners during the Blitz. In hindsight that seems natural. But Rutger Bregman’s forthcoming book Humankind points out that in the 1930s Winston Churchill and others feared pandemonium if London was attacked from the air. Britons failed to take this lesson to heart: they assumed that when German cities were bombed, German civilians would crack. They didn’t. These myths have fatal consequences.

Nor is calm co-operativeness restricted to times of war. In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in Turkey in 1999, the emergency relief expert Claude de Ville de Goyet berated media organisations for propagating what he called “disaster myths”. “While isolated cases of antisocial behavior exist,” he wrote, “the majority of people respond spontaneously and generously.”

The writer Dan Gardner, who punctured the disaster myth in a series of viral tweets, was repeatedly rebutted by people who regarded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as a potent counter-example.

That only underlines the malevolence of the myth. At the time, rumours ran wild about the murder and rape of children inside the Louisiana Superdome; but when the national guard showed up, armed and prepared for pitched battle, they were met instead by a nurse asking for medical supplies. Fear of civil disorder may well have caused more harm than the civil disorder itself — as when people trying to walk out of New Orleans across the bridge to nearby Gretna were turned back by armed police.

This pandemic has no exact precedents, but the evidence from past disasters suggests that we should expect more of each other. Many people and businesses took voluntary action on social distancing while both the British and US governments dithered; the UK administration was also surprised by how many people quickly volunteered to help with transport and supplies for vulnerable people.

We can be both nimble and altruistic, and perhaps the authorities should start taking that into account in their future policies. Given clear guidance as to the best thing to do, most of us try to do it.

Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Paradise Made In Hell: “What you believe shapes how you act.” Let’s start by believing in each other; kind acts will follow.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 17 April 2020.

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