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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Power of Human: Disengagement and Engagement with Humanity Amid COVID-19

In recent decades, we’ve witnessed a global seismic shift away from collectivism and toward individualism. Humans increasingly feel disengaged and distrustful of those around them due, in part, to the rise of automation, political polarization, stratification, and marketization. This trend has undoubtedly influenced our response to COVID-19 and will likely have serious implications for the nature of human relationships well after the pandemic ends. Drawing on his recent book, “The Power of Human: How our shared humanity can help us create a better world,” social psychologist and Northwestern Kellogg School of Management professor Dr. Adam Waytz joined the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs this week for a discussion on dehumanization trends and what they mean for our future. Here are four key takeaways:

Human relationships continue to be significant sources of psychological wellbeing: “The presence of humans gives us psychological meaning. When we’re aware of other humans, we’re more likely to behave with kindness and compassion. Our relationships are what move us to act as a collective,” Waytz said, pointing to research on persuasion that shows people are more inclined to act for the greater good when they see others doing the same. Amid COVID-19, “the best way to get people to engage in social distancing is to tell them they should do it on behalf of other humans,” Waytz said. Yet this is easier in some geographies than in others. Waytz pointed to comparative data on COVID-19 infection rates, which shows individualistic countries faring much worse than collectivist countries, “and virtually every country around the world has become more individualist” over the past decade.

Globally, we’re witnessing a decline in deep engagement with other humans: Since at least the 1960s, humans have become increasingly individualistic. Generally speaking, “people feel less empathy toward one another, trust each other less, and get together less in person,” Waytz said, “and this ‘pulling apart’ phenomenon largely explains why we’ve failed to address [COVID-19] with large-scale coordination. This ‘coming apart’ phenomenon has left us ill prepared to act as a unit.” Individualism isn’t, in itself, a bad thing, Waytz added. “When individual expression and individual preferences are respected, we see an increase in tolerance for people who are not like us. But the end result of individualism rising is a lack of real engagement with each other.” Waytz attributes this profound shift toward individualism to four pillars of dehumanization: automation, political polarization, stratification, and marketization— the transition from community relationships to buyer/seller relationships that has turned some humans into Wi-Fi hotspots and tickets to ride.

Technology can mediate or exacerbate dehumanization: “Technology can have positive or negative effects in terms of empathy and deep engagement with others,” Waytz said. “It can be a boost to empathy and sociability if it’s used to complement real-life relationships.” In the context of COVID-19, physical distancing and increased technology use do not necessarily translate to increases in loneliness: “This idea that because we’re physically isolated means we’re lonely is not necessarily true,” Waytz said. “Being actually apart from others is very distinctive from the feeling of being alone; you could have two friends and feel very connected or 200 friends and feel very isolated.” Extroverts are faring a bit worse than introverts in terms of feelings of connectedness in the midst of social distancing, Waytz said, but, overall, research shows how resilient people have been. “Most people are reporting almost zero change in their feelings of connectedness to others. Whether or not people will feel lonelier or more connected over time is something for us to monitor,” he added.

Storytelling is a powerful and underutilized tool in the fight against COVID-19: COVID-19 hasn’t had the same effect in bringing together people from different corners of our social and political landscape as did September 11, Waytz noted. “When you have a nebulous thing like a virus that’s invisible, it’s not as easy to rally people around a common enemy,” he said, and this is where storytelling has a role to play. “When we can see specific individuals affected, it can drive us to act in a powerful way.” The question, as Harvard professor Sarah Elizabeth Lewis recently put it, is “where are the photos of people dying of COVID?” There hasn’t been a real emblem of this crisis similar to the iconic photo of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi lying face down on a sandy beach in Turkey, which “mobilized empathy and concern.”

As Mother Teresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will,” Waytz said. But when we see an individualistic approach to addressing COVID-19—as we do in the United States where different states are opening up at different times—it’s difficult to surface compelling messages that speak to a sense of shared identity and humanity, he explained. “If we had even one single emblem or narrative about a family or human being or business, it could really help people recognize the importance of social distancing,” he said.

When asked about potential long-term repercussions of the pandemic, Waytz speculated “the world will be the same, but worse.” He suspects we’ll become more reliant on the machines and automation that already separate us from one another; political polarization will intensify; and already stark inequalities will worsen. “But it’s not all awful,” he said, pointing to people using digital technologies in new ways to strengthen connections with weaker ties. “I have a feeling the pandemic might result in a slight boost for social connection,” he said.