“Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch” — an essay by NOMIS researcher Ophelia Deroy

May 6, 2020

Covid-19: Threats makes us even more social, and this may be our biggest problem now

An interdisciplinary team led by Professor Ophelia Deroy, associate researcher at the Institute of Philosophy (IP) part of the University of London’s School of Advanced study, offers insights into how people behave in response to threat as countries face the biggest global crisis since World War II.

The team includes renowned social neuroscientist Chris Frith, professor of neuropsychology at UCL and honorary researcher at IP, and Guillaume Dezecache, a social psychologist at France’s Université Clermont Auvergne, who worked on responses to terrorist attacks.

Contrary to many media reports, panic and selfish behaviour are not the prevalent human responses to perceived danger. Their new paper reveals that people ‘affiliate and seek social contact even more when exposed to a threat’ – which is a massive challenge when they are urged to isolate themselves and conduct ‘social distancing.

Today (23 April) sees the release of their paper, ‘Pandemics and the great evolutionary mismatch’. Published in the prestigious scientific journal Current Biology (@CurrentBiology), it shines a spotlight on the mechanisms behind the psychological responses to coronavirus pandemics and includes policy recommendations. Discussions can be followed on Twitter using the hashtag #currentbiology. The paper, like others at the moment, is being expedited because of the urgency of the findings for academics, health authorities and policymakers.

‘The pictures of empty supermarket shelves, and parks full of people sunbathing that are circulating everywhere, are, if you think about it, contradictory. Are people responding with too much fear and selfishness? Or are they ignoring the danger and just enjoying hanging out as usual?

‘More importantly, what we point out is that they are misleading. The problem is not that we become selfish or ignore the danger. When we realise there is a danger, we crave social contact even more,’ explains Ophelia Deroy, who is also professor at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where she leads a project on collective interactions funded by the NOMIS foundation.

Continue reading the School of Advanced Study release