• EvoAnth@UCL

How can evolutionary behavioural sciences help us understand behaviour in a pandemic?

By Dr Emily Emmott

The Human Evolutionary Ecology Group at UCL have published a paper on How evolutionary behavioural sciences can help us understand behaviour in a pandemic. It explores how evolutionary frameworks provide some guiding principles behind human decision-making, which could help inform public health policy. Evolutionary frameworks can theoretically unite the different motivations behind behaviour change during a pandemic, such as mitigating infection risk and economic benefit, through their overall impact on inclusive fitness - facilitating holistic thinking. The paper examines the underlying ‘ultimate’ causes of behaviour, and explores topics such as: compliance with health-promoting rules and social distancing, domestic violence, preventing the spread of misinformation, and engendering cooperation within and between groups.

Overall, we suggest three guiding conclusions to understand behaviour in a pandemic from an evolutionary perspective:

1) ‘Good of the group’ arguments will not go far. Whilst individuals are willing to pay costs for the good of society, anything that involves long term costs to the individual may not be sustainable unless balanced by other motivations to cooperate.

2) Behaviour is heterogenous. ‘One size fits all’, while improving clarity of message, does not acknowledge the very different costs and benefits experienced by different individuals in society, which will lead to non-compliance. Social distancing policies may need to make exceptions for different kinds of interactions (such as forming ‘social bubbles’ with elderly relatives, or romantic partners living alone). Otherwise regulations are undermined by too many rule breakers - leading to the breakdown of general compliance.

3) Behaviour change is linked to a change in ecology. A behavioural ecology perspective highlights that sustained behaviour change is much more likely to emerge from environmental changes, rather than by just telling people how to behave. The widespread adoption of long-term changes in behaviour that would help keep pandemics at bay may require profound ecological and structural changes that improve life experiences, particularly for disadvantaged groups. Policies may need to look at modifying the costs and benefits of certain lifestyles or behaviours in favour of more security and prosperity.

The full paper can be accessed here.


Megan Arnot, Eva Brandl, O L K Campbell, Yuan Chen, Juan Du, Mark Dyble, Emily H Emmott, Erhao Ge, Luke D W Kretschmer, Ruth Mace, Alberto J C Micheletti, Sarah Nila, Sarah Peacey, Gul Deniz Salali, Hanzhi Zhang, How evolutionary behavioural sciences can help us understand behaviour in a pandemic, Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, eoaa038,

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