New research examines the moral foundations underlying compliance with COVID-19 guidelines

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New research sheds light on how a person’s moral compass guides their decision to comply with efforts to halt the transmission of COVID-19. The study was published in Personality and Individual Differences.

The author of the study was interested in examining the connections between fundamental moral intuitions and three behaviors intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19: staying at home, wearing face masks, and social distancing.

“Although there is much recognition to the fact that some people adopt the three behaviors and some don’t, I noticed that there wasn’t much attention regarding why some people do or don’t,” explained Eugene Chan, an associate professor at Purdue University.

Chan examined the topic through the lens of Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), a psychological framework that helps explain why people judge moral situations in different ways. The framework is made up of five foundations: Harm/Care, Fairness/Reciprocity, Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

For his study, Chan surveyed 1,033 Americans in April 2020 regarding their moral foundations, fear of COVID-19, compliance with preventive behaviors, and other factors. He found that caring and fairness concerns predicted compliance with all three behaviors, while sanctity concerns only predicted compliance with wearing face masks and social distancing.

“I notice that public health officials including the CDC appeal to the American public to engage in these behaviors ‘to show you care.’ However, as a moral psychologist, I know that people’s morality is more complex than a simple consideration of ‘caring.’ Thus, the decision about whether or not to stay at home, wear face masks, and social distance is much more complex,” Chan told PsyPost.

“I found that caring is relevant, for example, in supporting public health officials’ appeals. But, for younger adults, they considered the behaviors to go against human nature, and for older adults, they consider the behaviors as putting group goals ahead of personal preferences. I hope that my findings can explain why younger adults tend to flout the guidelines — and how to get them back to following them.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“I examined Americans, but the coronavirus pandemic is worldwide. Europeans, Asians, Australians, etc. might produce different results. The guidelines are also heavily politicized, especially the use of face masks, but I never looked at political ideology, so it would be worthwhile to see why exactly Democrats are more accepting of face masks than Republicans, without generalizing the difference too much,” Chan said.

The study, “Moral foundations underlying behavioral compliance during the COVID-19 pandemic“, was published October 21, 2020.

(Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay)