Moral Emotions During COVID-19

Examining the Role of Motivation and Choice

As the COVID-19 pandemic is currently surging across the United States, and worldwide, individuals and institutions are debating what can and should be done to protect public health. When it comes to how we navigate this complex landscape, what is the role of how we feel, and how we choose to manage our feelings? At the current moment, with cases increasing in the state of Pennsylvania, how can we use our moral emotions productively? In this blog post, we discuss how people choose to have empathy and moralize mask-wearing in the context of COVID-19.

The Role of Moral Emotion Regulation

To facilitate collective action, many psychologists point to people’s emotions. Empathically resonating with the suffering of someone who is grieving a loved one, or generating compassionate concern for them, might be helpful in motivating someone to take helpful actions, such as wearing masks in public spaces or maintaining physical distance. Our lab, and others’, are examining the role of such emotional reactions in these outcomes, and the role of interventions that inspire moral emotions (e.g., other groups have shared pre-prints examining appeals to duty vs. consequences, to prosociality vs. threat, to protecting oneself vs. protecting others). Through the Rock Ethics Institute, our group has also encouraged public dialogue about the role of empathy in everyday decision-making, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, the research team has been funded by the Huck Institute of the Life Sciences to study empathy and social distancing.

In addition to empathy, the moral outrage one may feel at seeing violations of social distancing at bars or beachfronts might motivate collective action, such as petitioning or reporting non-compliant businesses. Although it can be important to focus on how emotions might motivate public health behaviors, we suggest that we also need to consider the role of motivation and desire to choose these moral emotional responses.

Here we focus on two topics where emotional choice might matter: 1) in cultivating empathy and compassion for suffering due to COVID-19 and 2) in moralizing public health behaviors such as mask-wearing. These questions are important because they might influence how people consider messaging and framing of public health advice in an increasingly polarized and contentious climate.

Compassion Collapse for COVID-19

First, do people choose to cultivate empathy for the suffering caused by COVID-19? One of the most challenging aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic is its scope. With over 150,000 United States citizens dead to date, people may have a difficult time appreciating the scale and importance of the crisis (e.g., see this discussion of some potential psychological obstacles). Ironically, as the pandemic continues to worsen, people may become more insensitive to it. This is what psychologists call “compassion collapse” : people can feel much empathy and compassion for single identifiable victims, but are less compelled by large numbers. Although some have suggested that this insensitivity is inevitable, another explanation is that as the pandemic spreads, people may develop more motivations to disengage from it (though it is possible that the crisis will inspire prosociality as well).

Over the years, my lab (the Empathy and Moral Psychology Lab) and others’ have explored why this effect emerges, with one explanation being that people sometimes choose to avoid empathizing when it seems costly to them. If people feel like helping thousands of people will cost too much of their own resources (e.g., time, money), or that they would not make an impact, they might choose to disengage emotionally from the crisis. The concern about inefficacy may be particularly relevant as people witness fragmentation of public health response to COVID-19 across the federal, state, and individual levels. Other work reveals that when people become sensitized to a large-scale event as “the norm”, it becomes less likely to trigger an acute emotional reaction. As there is some public debate about Americans getting normalized to mass suffering, the role of active choices in compassion collapse becomes more salient. A motivational perspective suggests that we can cultivate stronger empathy for large-scale suffering as in COVID-19 with sufficient effort. Here there are two instances of choice: choice about whether to engage in the public health behaviors that might slow the pandemic, and then choice about whether to engage empathetically with the suffering of the people impacted by it.

As it has become increasingly clear that the pandemic is disproportionately impacting minority communities (see here for review and CDC statement), it is also important to consider how intergroup bias (i.e., less empathy for groups that are seen as dissimilar to one’s own) may intersect with and accentuate any compassion collapse during COVID-19. Intertwined with this concern is people’s own defensiveness and fear, which can motivate them to search for reasons why they are not vulnerable -- a form of distancing from the suffering of others in its own right, as is seen when people try to find some pre-existing conditions for why someone did not survive, and over-optimism about their own invulnerability.

How Can We Address Compassion Collapse in the Context of COVID-19?

One caveat worth noting is that research needs to be done to examine whether people are actually exhibiting emotional numbing during the pandemic. Nevertheless, some prior work suggests that the way we think about our own ability to successfully empathize is important for whether people choose empathy, as is how much effort and cost they perceive in certain prosocial responses that reduce suffering. Even though wearing a mask might seem like an effortless and inexpensive way to help, there may still exist ideological motivations that deter its use.

For example, people might wonder: How much am I really helping by wearing this mask? Is just one person really able to slow the spread of the virus? Questions like these are directly tied to perceptions of efficacy and are not uncommon when people think about global disasters (e.g. climate change) that seem out of their reach. When dealing with such all-encompassing issues such as COVID-19, easily accessible information about how exactly an individual’s use of a mask contributes to the slowing down of the virus may be key. However, aside from efficacy perceptions that may deter someone from wearing a mask, there exist additional, perhaps more complicated motivations that impact one’s decision to wear a mask.

The Morality of Masks

Secondly, how are people choosing whether to moralize everyday health behaviors such as wearing masks? Although public health experts strongly recommend, and in some cases mandate, the use of masks in public spaces, there are growing divides on whether or not to wear masks. We see this in physical confrontations in grocery store parking lots, and heated comment threads on social media platforms. Communities seem to rift with differing opinions about masks, though recent polling as of early July suggests increased concern and wearing of masks, and perhaps underestimation of consensus. In moral psychology, we examine the underlying mental processes that describe and explain whether, when, and how people moralize different kinds of actions.

People might choose to moralize mask-wearing in line with different moral principles. Because the response to mask-wearing has not been unanimous and firmly enforced across the nation, individual preferences may play more of a role. Many point to the prosocial impacts of wearing masks: the Pennsylvania Department of Health says that “My mask protects you, your mask protects me”. Wearing a mask can signal that you care about the welfare of others, and observers use such signals to make decisions about who totrust and cooperate with. On the other hand, some might construe masks as reducing individual liberty. Polarization about mask-wearing may result from people relying on different moral principles (e.g., care vs. liberty). Researchers and policymakers should consider how moral principles may be relied on differently across groups (for instance, based on ideology), and how to frame health messaging to find common ground (for example, appealing to mask-wearing as enhancing freedom of choice).

Moreover, although many people actively consider mask-wearing a moral issue, others may not moralize this behavior at all. Do people choose to think about mask-wearing as moral or amoral? If a person doesn’t consider the moral implications of mask-wearing (e.g., it will keep others from being harmed), and only considers its practical implications (e.g., it may be uncomfortable), they may not endorse universal rules regarding mask-wearing. Previous research suggests that when an attitude or issue is moralized, it motivates stronger behaviors and intolerance of dissent. Similar considerations may extend to public health questions about opening or closing schools, beaches, or bars.

Why would someone avoid considering the moral ramifications of mask-wearing?

Some of the same motivational factors relevant to empathy might apply, such as emotional fatigue and conflict with social identities. Additionally, it’s possible that for some people, mask-wearing may not seem like a prototypically moralized action. People often moralize actions to the extent they are seen as harmful, and canonical moral violations often involve direct physical harm. An act like not wearing a mask may feel less obviously harmful (even though numerous studies suggest that masks can prevent viral spread) because the immediate viral impact might not be as visible or directed at specific victims, which could blunt emotional reactions. More obvious harms are becoming attached to the mask-wearing issue, with incidents of non-mask-wearers becoming violent when asked to wear masks. Understanding how and why people choose to moralize mask-wearing will be critically important to advancing the pandemic response. Collectively, people may be trying to negotiate what sort of signal of common moral knowledge masks are supposed to represent, and this dovetails with the debate over whether “mask shaming” will be productive or not for motivating broader community behavioral change.


As the scope of the pandemic increases, the sheer number of cases and fatalities may lead some people to choose to disengage from empathy. We suggest, based upon previous work, that it’s important to remember that people can opt to relate to their emotions in different ways, and numbness toward COVID-19 fatalities may not be inevitable, particularly given the diverse motivations people might have for not fully understanding the toll. People can choose to sustain empathy and compassion as cases and fatalities increase. They can also choose whether to sustain outrage about violations of mask-wearing and social distancing, and whether to raise awareness about the moral stakes of such public health behaviors.

The psychological literature suggests that we might play an active role in shaping our moral emotions as we respond to COVID-19. We note that many of these recommendations derive from previous work, and more research is needed to fully understand how to generalize psychological findings to the unique situation of COVID-19. Importantly, empathy, compassion, and outrage may sometimes support each other in a goal-directed way. If you cultivate empathy for current and future victims of COVID-19, you may be more likely to moralize public health behaviors like mask-wearing and feel outrage at those who don’t comply. This coordination between moral emotions can be rational and justified, as a means of inspiring collective action to foster public health.

Article Topics: psychology, Pennsylvania, moral emotions
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