They found that the top 10 sets of attitudes linked to having strict ethical beliefs included views on religion, views about crime and confidence in political leadership. Two of those 10 stood out, the authors wrote: the belief that “humanity has a bright future” was associated with a strong ethical code, and the belief that “humanity has a bleak future” was associated with a looser one.
“We wanted something we could manipulate, in a study, and that applied to the situation we’re in right now — what does humanity’s future look like?” Dr. Savani said.
In a subsequent study of some 300 U.S. residents, conducted online, half of the participants were asked to read a relatively dire but accurate accounting of how the pandemic was proceeding: China had contained it, but not without severe measures and some luck; the northeastern U.S. had also contained it, but a second wave was underway and might be worse, and so on.
This group, after its reading assignment, was more likely to justify violations of Covid-19 etiquette, like hoarding groceries or going maskless, than the other participants, who had read an upbeat and equally accurate pandemic tale: China and other nations had contained outbreaks entirely, vaccines are on the way, and lockdowns and other measures have worked well.
“In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the authors concluded, “our findings suggest that if we want people to act in an ethical manner, we should give people reasons to be optimistic about the future of the epidemic” through government and mass-media messaging, emphasizing the positives.
That’s far easier said than done. No psychology paper is going to drive national policies, at least not without replication and more evidence, outside experts said. But a natural test of the idea may be unfolding: Based on preliminary data, two vaccines now in development are around 95 percent effective, scientists reported this month. Will that optimistic news spur more-responsible behavior?
“Our findings would suggest that people are likely to be more ethical in their day-to-day lives, like wearing masks, with the news of all the vaccines,” Dr. Savani said in an email.