Skip to main content

How to act cooperatively in the face of a pandemic

ASU psychologist Athena Aktipis and collaborators weigh in

March 13, 2020

Cooperation is essential during a pandemic. As societies deal with the rise of disease in different ways, a consistent theme is that knowing how diseases spread and evolve can put you in a much better position to evaluate what is or isn’t a real threat.

We asked Arizona State University’s resident expert on cooperation, Athena Aktipis, and some of her collaborators about how to encourage cooperation during a pandemic. Aktipis is an assistant professor of psychology in the ASU Department of Psychology who studies cooperation and cheating and co-directs the Human Generosity Project

“Researchers who study cooperation span many different disciplines, approaches and backgrounds, making it possible for us to learn from one another and leverage lots of different knowledge bases to triangulate on problems and think about how we can better survive and thrive in challenging situations, both as individuals and as a society,” Aktipis said. She assembled a diverse team that is collaborating on an interdisciplinary project to study cooperation and interdependence during the pandemic.

We spoke with Lee Cronk, who co-directs the Human Generosity Project with Aktipis and is an anthropologist at Rutgers University; Emily Zarka, of ASU’s English Department, who studies representations of the undead in literature as a method to understand history; Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico who has worked on reducing the risks associated with global catastrophes like pandemics; Keith Tidball, an anthroecologist from Cornell University, who studies natural resource management in times of disasters and war; and Joe Alcock, an emergency physician at the University of New Mexico Hospital who has been deployed on the New Mexico Disaster Medical Assistance team, which handles the worst-case scenarios involving patients and the general population.

Question: During a pandemic, do you expect for people to act cooperatively or selfishly?

Aktipis: I have an optimistic view because often during disaster situations people come together to share resources, information and help. However, if people expect others to be selfish this can make everybody more fearful and lead to a downward spiral. We have 10 field sites in small-scale societies around the world in the Human Generosity Project, and among the people we study, we see a lot of cooperation and sharing when people are most hungry and in need. It is important for us to think about ways to keep building societal trust during times of uncertainty so that we can keep cooperating to solve the problems we are facing.

Cronk: People will be both cooperative and uncooperative in different contexts. In the case of COVID-19, we already see uncooperative behavior in the hoarding of face masks, disposable gloves, sanitizing gel and so on. But those who suffer as a result of such behavior are strangers to the hoarders, and the hoarders can use the items they have hoarded to help people they know. This example shows how cooperation is relatively easy to accomplish on small scales and with small numbers of people but is difficult to achieve on large scales and with large numbers of people. The fact that we’re dealing with a contagious disease will also have an impact on levels of cooperation. Much, though not all, of cooperation involves being in proximity to other people, which is exactly what one wants to avoid during an epidemic.

Alcock: During epidemics and times of great stress it will become even more difficult to coordinate and mobilize people to act cooperatively. There are always individuals and groups who are willing to help out, often at great cost to themselves. We need look no further than the “dirty teams” of medical volunteers during the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong who risked their lives to care for victims of that epidemic. On the other hand, self-interested hoarding has led to the disappearance of basic supplies and personal protective equipment in affected hospitals in Washington state, in one of the wealthiest communities on the planet. Currently, the tension between altruism and selfishness driven by desperation and panic will come into sharp relief.

Q: What can people do to prepare now for COVID-19 or to be better prepared for future issues?

Zarka: Always vet your information. Make sure you are getting accurate information from unbiased, knowledgeable resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. ASU has a centralized information hub that can provide information about travel restrictions and general instructions for prevention.

Tidball: Use trusted resources like to put together an emergency preparedness plan, which outlines an approach that is endorsed and used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As you prepare your emergency plan, match your plans and supplies to your specific daily living needs and responsibilities. Discuss your needs and responsibilities and how you and friends and family can assist each other with communication, care of children, business, pets or specific medical needs. Create your own personal network for the specific areas where you need assistance.

Q: What should we be doing on a societal or community level?

Aktipis: Many of the small scale societies that we study in the Human Generosity Project have systems of helping one another in times of need that they can call upon during disasters. We should be thinking about building and supporting informal networks that can help buffer us from risks as well as thinking about how we can expand systems of helping to larger and larger scales without losing their effectiveness.

Miller: For society to function through future crises, it needs to create an effective, evidence-based, well-funded, well-staffed global system for reducing pandemic risks, costs and disruptions. The current spread of COVID-19 is a wake-up call that in a world tightly connected by international air travel, we cannot be complacent about these risks. Humanity is divided into many nations, religions, races and ideologies — but we all share the same biology that is vulnerable to the same infectious diseases. We have to tackle pandemic risks as a unified species.

Q: What should scientists do to help with the current crisis and in the future?

Miller: During times of crisis, we have at least three moral duties as citizen-scientists. We have to pay attention to the news, keep up with emerging data and take serious global threats seriously. We should offer our expertise to help other citizens find the middle ground between oblivious business-as-usual denialism — “COVID-19 is no worse than the flu” — and end-of-the-world catastrophism — “COVID-19 is an existential threat to humanity.” We should also work together in interdisciplinary teams to learn as much as we can, as fast as we can, about how people respond to the virus. This way we can help manage future pandemics better than we’ve managed this one.

Alcock: Even if the spread of the virus ended today, it would already yield enough surprises to fuel the careers of countless epidemiologists, physicians and social scientists. We are only in the earliest stages of this public health disaster, which has the potential to transform economies, medical systems and politics. In confronting this threat, we have an opportunity to be our best selves. Grave threats can re-focus our efforts on what is important: 1) promoting cooperation between scientists, physicians and political leaders, 2) making our public health system stronger and more agile, and 3) ensuring that accurate and useful knowledge is conveyed to the public.  

Aktipis: As scientists studying topics that are relevant to the present issues, we have a moral obligation to share our knowledge both with the public and with each other. We have to share knowledge across disciplines and be open to working with people from different fields who bring different information and skills to the table. A big part of why I started the Zombie Apocalypse Medicine Alliance and the Zombified podcast is to avoid becoming overwhelmed with feelings of fear or uncertainty when talking about issues like what we’re currently facing.

We use the zombie apocalypse as a lens through which we can talk about potentially frightening aspects of our present and future with imagination and creativity instead of fear. Framing the conversations this way is not about just dealing with the present threat from COVID-19, but rather about how we increase our readiness for the challenges humanity will likely face in the future.

Research opportunity: If you would like to participate in the research study that this interdisciplinary team is running, "Preparing and assessing risk in unfamiliar situations," go here.

Top photo by Ashley Gerlach via Unsplash

More Science and technology


Scientist taking noted in the field.

Research on how rocks preserve signs of life honors late ASU mentor

Building from his PhD work at Arizona State University, Jon Lima-Zaloumis is developing methods to look for signs of active life occurring in extreme environments, namely in the Earth’s atmosphere…

Woman in a white coat working in a lab.

Tooth enamel from Greek cemetery tells the story of those buried

An ASU PhD candidate is working to piece together the lives of people who were found buried in shackles in a Greek cemetery through the study of teeth. The Phaleron cemetery was first discovered in…

Maitrayee Bose poses with NanoSIMS 50L at Arizona State University.

ASU cosmochemist a pioneer in space dust analysis

Although Maitrayee Bose always knew she’d be scientist, it wasn’t until she was a graduate student that she knew exactly what it was she wanted to study. “At Washington University, they had a big…