Acute anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic was associated with higher levels of everyday altruism

Sci Rep. 2022 Nov 3;12(1):18619. doi: 10.1038/s41598-022-23415-2.


Prior laboratory research has suggested that humans may become more prosocial in stressful or threatening situations, but it is unknown whether the link between prosociality and defense generalizes to real-life. Here, we examined the association between defensive responses to a real-world threat (the COVID-19 pandemic) and everyday altruism. Four independent samples of 150 (N = 600) US residents were recruited online at 4 different timepoints, and self-report measures of perceived COVID-19 threat, defensive emotions (e.g., stress and anxiety), and everyday altruism were collected. Our operationalization of defensive emotions was inspired by the threat imminence framework, an ecological model of how humans and animals respond to varying levels of threat. We found that perceived COVID-19 threat was associated with higher levels of everyday altruism (assessed by the Self-report Altruism scale). Importantly, there was a robust association between experiencing acute anxiety and high physiological arousal during the pandemic (responses typically characteristic of higher perceived threat imminence), and propensity to engage in everyday altruism. Non-significant or negative associations were found with less acute defensive responses like stress. These findings support a real-life relation between defensive and altruistic motivation in humans, which may be modulated by perceived threat imminence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Altruism*
  • Anxiety / epidemiology
  • Anxiety / psychology
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Pandemics