Across 42 countries, how did the unique social circumstances of COVID-19 affect fundamental social motives?

– by Cari Pick

For many people worldwide, the COVID-19 pandemic created an evolutionarily novel set of pressures: extended social isolation as 57% of the world’s population was confined to full or partial lockdown measures. How would these pressures reshape our social lives? Did the social distancing affect our fundamental social motives: the suites of cognitive, affective, and behavioral tools aimed at addressing the adaptive social challenges of protecting ourselves from dangerous others, avoiding contagious disease, finding and maintaining cooperative partners (affiliation), gaining and keeping status, finding mates, retaining those mates, and caring for kin? It did…and importantly did not.

To find this out, our international team of 66 researchers measured a total of 6,917 people’s fundamental social motives in 29 countries during the first year of the pandemic and compared this to data we had collected measuring 8,998 people’s motives in 32 countries before the pandemic began. We found that, as expected, people on average became more concerned about avoiding disease during the pandemic than before.

There were also several other smaller but sensible shifts in people’s motives. Unsurprisingly, we saw that people with children became even more concerned about caring for them during the pandemic: a strong drive to protect one’s offspring during a dangerous time. We may have also expected that the isolation—the inability to meet potential new romantic partners, spend time with friends, or interact with colleagues—would lead people’s mate seeking, affiliation, and status seeking motives to reactively increase and boost the pursuit of these goals. On the contrary, as people’s disease avoidance increased, several of the motives most likely to bring them near potentially contagious individuals—when finding mates, maintaining friendships, or gaining status—all decreased.

But in an important way, we saw no difference before versus during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic began, we consistently saw across countries (and across several methodologies) that people were more motivated to care for their families and long-term romantic partners than to find new mates. And again during the pandemic, all around the world, people on average remained more motivated to care for family than to seek mates—and more motivated to care for family than to avoid disease!

Before the pandemic, people who were more concerned with caring for family also tended to be happier, with higher levels of well-being and lower levels of depression and anxiety, whereas people who were more concerned with finding mates tended be less happy, more depressed, and more anxious. On the other hand, both before and during the pandemic, people with higher disease avoidance motive tended to be less happy. Would the heightened disease avoidance concern during the pandemic smother a relationship between happiness and people’s kin care and mate seeking motives? Would happiness still be positively associated with family care for people confined to their homes, many now living in increased enforced daily contact with immediate family members? Yes, it seems that family still matters: During the pandemic, people who were more concerned with caring for family again tended to be happier, and those more concerned with finding mates again tended to be less happy.

Despite a large shift in disease avoidance motive, most of the other significant fundamental social motive shifts we saw during the pandemic were relatively small, and the overarching pattern of the preeminence of family-care motives remained. Yet as many people reinvented their daily lives, avoiding going in person to work, school, and even the grocery store, one could have expected to see even bigger shifts in their fundamental social motives. Why might that not have been the case? Perhaps the marvels of modern technology let many people remain connected enough to avoid the worst effects of isolation through video calls, social media, and even modern dating apps. Perhaps people’s fundamental social motives are resilient to certain shifts in external circumstances, temporarily spiking or dropping as a situation requires and then settling back to something like a baseline level. Or perhaps our samples did not include people who faced some of the worst effects of the pandemic. One thing that does seem clear, however, is that humans rely upon family to overcome many challenges, and even in the face of a global pandemic, family still matters most.

Read the paper: Family Still Matters, or read more about the published data which are freely available for use in your own work.

Pick, C., et al. (66 co-authors). (2022). Family still matters: human social motivation across 42 countries during a global pandemic. Evolution and Human Behavior43(6), 527-535.