Tag Archives: COVID-19

Good for You? Good for Me! Flattening the Curve through the Combinations of Altruism

By Will McCreadie and James Giordano PhD

The Arabian Babbler bird is unusually generous; babblers sing and dance together, give gifts to each other, groom one another, and even compete fiercely for the privilege of helping their peers.  They feed each other’s young and vie to guard the territory while the others in their group forage.  As a species, they exemplify traits of altruism – acts of benefiting others – along a spectrum of egoism (i.e.- eliciting some relative benefit to self). Within this spectrum is competitive altruism, wherein agents act in ways that appear “selfless”, but which enable their own gain by affording some advantage within and among others. As well, there is reciprocal altruism, which entails giving in order to obtain something in return. These are not mutually exclusive; altruistic behaviors often send strong social signals that can boost the giver’s reputation.  This can lead to upward mobility within a group, and augment self-worth and well-being, as sustained by their position and supportive actions of the group, in the future.

As we have noted, every altruistic act has an egoistic component. It’s how brains work: we sense and perceive the world (and our place and status within it) through the subjective lens of self-embodiment. On some level, whether subtly or overtly, we weigh our choices and decisions for action upon the consequences that will be incurred (for ourselves) in and along temporal scale (i.e.- “Being good to others affords some good for me now and/or good for me later”, etc.). It seems that competitive giving can result in more prosocial behavior than anonymous altruism alone. Competitive altruism plays an significant role in human generosity, and allows for a deeper understanding of how people are responding to COVID-19. In turn, this may allow better incentivization(s) for altruism. Such incentives characteristically appeal to the key factors of social signaling: visibility, credibility, and social resonance.


For generosity to be a social signal, it must be noticeable – or at least recognizable. This helps to explain why very few donations are anonymous.  A 2019 study of GoFundMe data revealed that only 21% of donations were made anonymously, and the median anonymous donation was less than the median attributed donation.  This is consistent with prior work that has shown that people tend to be far more generous when their giving is public. Clearly, visibility of some form and level plays a critical role in most peoples’ giving.


The ethologist Amotz Zahavi was among the first to propose that an altruistic act can be a social signal, and this precept was a foundational element of what he called the handicap principle.  In this framework, making a sacrifice signals evolutionary fitness because it is a costly (and therefore hard to fake) sign that the giver is “well-off” enough to be generous. Thus, more significant acts of altruism send stronger – and better – social signals.

Social Resonance

Social norms also contribute to the valuation of particular signal. In the short- or long-term, the signal must convey something of benefit, both to the group and the giver about what is given, as well as what will be perceived as the relative value of the identity, role, and/or place of the giver within the social ecology, in order to make the signal of the altruistic act(s) worthwhile.

Altruism and COVID-19

There are two reasons to care about the spectrum of altruism as we fight the pandemic.  First, it explains acts of giving that might seem otherwise irrational. Most charitable behaviors appear to make little “egoistic” sense, because the cost of the action(s) is, by definition, to the giver, and not explicitly recouped. In other words, the proverbial “juice” does not seem to be “worth the squeeze”. But it depends on what juice, how much, and who’s savoring it.  Both reciprocal and competitive altruism expand constructs and contexts of costs and benefits to include status.  While there’s an initial cost to giving, the benefactor can increase their social status if the signal is visible, credible, and resonant.

Second, competitive giving can result in better outcomes for society as a whole. If one person donates an hour of their time to fighting the virus, someone else may contribute an hour and a half, escalating the social standard for acceptable contribution.  If these signals are visible and valuable, someone else – who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise make a contribution – may step in, feeling some socially related self-referential impetus to be at least as good as their peers. Scaling this dynamic across millions of people can radically augment our response to the virus.

Mask Wearing: Competitive Altruism Creating a New Norm

Masks are one of the most economically attractive coronavirus responses, because they offer considerable benefit for minimal cost. It’s been projected that if 95% of people wear a mask in public gatherings of any sort, 67,000 American lives could be saved by December 1st.

However, mask wearing is still far from universal. It’s been shown that men are particularly resistant to wearing face coverings, and are more likely to feel that masks are “uncool” and “signs of weakness”.

Competitive altruism could play a role in mitigating or reversing this trend. Masks are already visible and reliable signals (it’s hard to fake wearing one), but it will be important, and may be necessary to establish mask-wearing status competitiveness in order to prompt new social norms.

As we’ve noted before, it’s time for masks to be considered aspirational and ‘cool’.  Normalizing masks as an extension of personal identity and benevolent intent increases their social resonance. This sends signals that make it more “competitively desirable” for people to wear masks in public amidst the ongoing COVID crisis; establishing mask-wearers as “crusaders against COVID” and contributory to social welfare. In this way, they take on a heroically giving aspect to their social identity. And, if masks are considered fashionable, people can seek status by choosing expressive materials and creative designs. The more perceived effort someone puts into their mask habits (even if that perception is one of “I ordinarily would never wear a mask, but for the good of others, I will”), the more robustly reliable the signal, and the greater the potential for positive competition and its beneficial social effect(s).

If people can compete to protect each other (i.e.- competitive cooperative altruism), the greater the common good. Indeed, we can gain considerable insight from the past: Aristotle was right – doing good for others is rewarding for oneself. As we fight the pandemic, we should stop babbling about wearing or not wearing a mask, and embrace masks – and our actions for others – as a form of positive self-expression, with attributes for both ourselves and society.


Accept the Responsibilities of Participating in Public Health

By James Giordano PhD, Professor, Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry and Senior Scholar-in-Residence, Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics

The SARS-CoV-2 virus is not taking the summer off.  Recent studies by Stephanhie Pfänder and colleagues at Ruhr University Bochum (GER) have shown that the virus remains viable for almost 18 hours at temperatures of 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

While many constraints on business openings and social gatherings have relaxed, COVID hasn’t cratered, and current efforts to regain socio-economic stability, while still being topics of contention in government, are in fact precariously balanced upon peoples’ participation in doing what it takes to sustain public health.

Public health is about us, but cannot happen without us; because we are that public. It is our health, individually and collectively, that is the goal, and as such we must be – and remain – committed to the process. Continue to maintain physical distancing when out in the community, and acknowledge and accept that being in public spaces requires your active role in public health.

So, when out and about, cover your nose and mouth:


Photo: St. Ignatius Masked at Loyola U Medical Center Maywood Illiniois. Photo courtesy Daniel Dillinger MD

Wearing Masks and Asserting Meaning: Insights from the Neurocognitive Science of Cool

By Will McCreadie and  James Giordano, PhD

Beginning this week, the nation as a whole will attempt relaxation of social restriction, re-engagement of public activities, and re-opening of certain businesses and venues. Four months ago, people wearing masks stood out. Now it’s those who don’t that often catch a sideways glance. Yet, despite the ongoing risk of infection amidst calls and efforts for relaxing social restrictions, some people are rebelling against wearing protective gear. Just this past weekend, when one maskless family was asked on the street about their lack of PPE, they responded, almost in unison “masks aren’t cool”. At the same time, A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez have been “corona-shamed” and labeled arrogant for not wearing masks. Why the discrepancy?

Research in neurocognitive science suggests that sentiments of “cool” are actually a complex combination of feelings of fear and aspiration. It combines the desire to be differentiated with the need to feel accepted. Studies indicate that deciding something is cool draws on two functional systems of the brain: the default mode network (DMN), and the salience network (SN). The DMN is linked to introspection and the determination of value – the rewards associated with being “cool”, while the SN plays a role in fear (often seeking to balance fears of both the behavior in question, and of being ostracized).

Such patterns of thought, emotion, and behavior are the focus of somewhat new disciplines of neuroeconomics and neuromarketing. The use of masks provides a perfect natural experiment to gauge how “cool” works, because they haven’t been common in our society since the 1918 flu pandemic, and have been now thrust into the social-spotlight.

When deciding if something is “cool,” our brains calculate the relative benefits and costs of that choice. We rarely need to ponder this judgement; we just “feel it”. The human brain takes less than 300 milliseconds to form an opinion, assessing events and consequences in our past, with the current situation, and making predictions about the near-term and future consequences of our decisions and actions. This is the phenomenon of automatic valuation.

Deciding whether something is cool, and worth the “investment” in terms of benefit, burden, and risk, comes down to figuring out what maximizes its – and your – utility. Our brains go through a rapid series of inquiry: Will this choice help me or hurt me? In the near term, or in the future? Is it the best of my available options? People aren’t perfectly rational, so we tend to base decisions and actions upon our beliefs and experience of what’s most useful.

In the case of masks, the obvious tradeoff is freedom versus safety; but considering “cool” in the equation demonstrates that other forces are also at work. What we find “cool” and feel good about depends on the image of ourselves we want to convey. We are strongly social creatures, who are sensitive to the ways we’re regarded. Whether or not you wear a mask conveys a signal (even if you don’t realize it). Social signaling plays a significant role in what we wear, and do.

This partly explains the divide in public stances on PPE. In neuroeconomic terms, masks are an identity good. People who wear masks (or dress up their Twitter profiles with mask pics) may hope to signal their virtue and intelligence, by highlighting the relative sacrifice of their comfort, both for the good of others (and for their own good – both to prevent infection, and to be perceived as socially responsible). People making unusual homemade masks may seek to highlight their resourcefulness and creativity. Those without masks are signaling something else: confidence, rebelliousness, bravery, or foolishness and selfishness — depending on your perspective.

There is also a status system in mask culture. Any recollection of middle school will surely bring to mind the in-group/out-group dynamic that plays a substantive part in determining what we find cool: with people on the “outside” aspiring to copy and outdo people on the “inside” to gain acceptance. Primate studies show this hierarchical behavior to be a side-effect of evolution. Status, and belonging to an in-group were valuable for our ancestors because the chances of survival were higher for a group member than an outcast. This primal need to conform may be a one of the factors in seeking to be “cool”. At the same time, no one wants to feel like a faceless member of the herd. To be cool, we strive for acceptance without homogeneity, and differentiation without alienation from the group.

Almost overnight COVID-19 has created a new in-group: people wearing masks. Like any major trend, there are subgroups within the mask-wearing set. The professional grade mask signals that you either are a “front-line” worker, that you have enough money to afford a scarce item, or that you’ve got good connections. People in different age groups also try to gain status by signaling different things. Teens, for example, may want branded masks (searches for designer masks increased 100-fold from mid-February to mid-April). Part of the reason why a teen covets a Supreme face mask ($450 online if you can get it), while their parents would never wear one, is that their peer groups value different things. Teens tend to want to be edgy and unique.

A significant element of cool in the age of COVID-19 is competitive – and reciprocal – altruism, which is another form of social signaling. Whether it’s the CEO of Flexport sending 3 million masks to Amsterdam, or the CEO of Twitter giving away almost a billion dollars and tracking it in a Google spreadsheet, people and companies are vying to be the most creative and effective responders to the virus. If selflessness wasn’t a valuable social signal, people would make these donations anonymously. Our research has shown that every altruistic act has an egoistic component. It’s “cool to be kind”, and as a result such acts of altruism make the actor feel good.

For many people, masks are an entirely new form of self-expression whose usefulness goes beyond their protective benefit. Simply put, as we strive to re-start our socio-economic engines for the benefit of both individuals and the population at large, masks are a currency of capability and cool. So, whether it’s making a statement of individualism, asserting acts of altruism, or evidencing a stance of responsibility, masks are a medium to represent ourselves in a commitment to each other.

Will McCreadie studies computer science and economics at Georgetown University, where he is a Baker Scholar and a Carroll Fellow.  His research in neuroeconomics examines the neurological underpinnings of decision-making.  Will’s current work explores the biological causes and economic implications of the human desire to be accepted.  He is on Twitter @McCreadieWill

James Giordano PhD is Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry, Chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program, and Senior Scholar-in-Residence of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Navigating the COVID Crisis: A Call to Virtue, and Hope for Prudence


By James Giordano, PhD, MPhil

“Lead; follow; or get out of the way.”

Lee Iacocca


The COVID-19 crisis has impacted each and all in ways that range from inconvenience to inconsolable loss. Such times bring into stark relief the need – and ethical obligation – for an open society’s political establishment to exercise its purpose, process, and leadership to protect the polis it serves. This mandates comprehensive appraisal of all available information and establishment of facts – defined as “something known or proved to be true” – with recognition that facts can and often do change as a consequence of more detailed investigation and evolution of circumstance. Facts provide the basis for developing knowledge. This knowledge is important to effectively inform decision-making, develop planning, prepare necessary responses, and maintain public awareness, guidance, and trust.

A number of years ago, I was involved in a NATO modelling exercise that was intended to assess relative capabilities and weaknesses in United States’ biosecurity readiness and response. I had the interesting distinction of directing the “bad guy team” – to simulate development and implementation of a “biological agent” that would pose a potentially expansive threat to public health, safety, and stability. Interestingly, the exercise illustrated that the disruptive and ultimately destructive factor was not the biological agent itself, but rather the spread of misinformation, which heightened peoples’ uncertainties, preyed upon their relative lack of understanding of science, and manipulated the public need for sound, stable leadership.  In other words, it wasn’t the bug, but the bamboozling that fractured public trust, disrupted the capability of government, and created further opportunities for destructive effects in biomedical, socio-economic, and cultural domains and dimensions.

As the simulation played out, the “good guys” could not initially stem the tide of disruption that misinformation, miscommunication, and mistrust created.  To rebound and regain national stability required a concentrated, dedicated effort of establishing credible resources, providing accurate, appropriately communicated information, and fostering and sustaining cooperation and collaboration. Crucial to this enterprise was sound leadership, which served as a sail, rudder, and keel to “take the wind of change” – regardless of direction, intensity, and harshness – and harness it to steadily steer ahead a recuperative path. Such leadership requires trust, teamwork, and respect for and reliance upon those who are best qualified to navigate often treacherous courses, so as to “lead from the front of the boat.”

Sound leadership entails ethical stewardship of power. Ethical leadership responsibly assumes both the benefit and burden of command – in often self-effacing ways – so as to maximize the good of those being led, especially in times of uncertainty, insecurity, and need. The country – and world – is faced with a pandemic.  Professional forums and media of all sorts are rife with bellicose language about “fighting the war” on this “adversary,” the SARS-Cov-2 virus.

Such talk may be familiar to prior generations’ recall of mobilization of national resources during World War II, efforts of the space race, and in more recent memory, the aftermath of 9/11.  For a more biomedical example, we look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918, compare the morbidity and mortality it sustained to losses during the first world war, and frame the impact of the current COVID-crisis in terms of casualties of recent wars in the Middle East and Viet Nam. Perhaps such rhetoric is useful, as it drums up public spirit, poses a “grand challenge,” and harnesses “big science” to engage a common cause.

But if we use such language, and exemplify the triumphs of previous bellicose efforts, then we must also examine when, how, and why similar endeavors failed. History is rich with international and domestic instances of leaders who did not respect the wisdom and heed the counsel of expert field commanders, intelligence services, scientists and engineers. In so doing, those leaders fell prey to intellectual shortsightedness, egotism and/or narcissism, and as a result, acted impulsively and foolishly at least, and in ways gravely erroneous – and with dismal consequences – at worst. Let both the successes and failures of the past serve as lessons to be learned.

To be sure, the COVID crisis is humbling in many ways. It has brought to light our vulnerabilities and threatens much that we value. This is not the time for hubris, a lack of veracity, vindictiveness, or sarcasm. The public is anxious if not frightened. The present is wrought with burden and the future is uncertain. As a scientist, I call for confidence in, and reporting of facts – as they are known, and as they change. As an ethicist, I know all too well the importance of facts to decision-making and reasoned action, and I implore the need for responsible cooperation, collaboration, and communication. And as a citizen, I hope for an end to petty partisanry, and the sound shepherding of truth, intention, and commitment to assume a more prudent path through – and recovery from – this pandemic.

James Giordano PhD, MPhil, is Senior Scholar-in-Residence of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, and Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC.  For more of Dr. Giordano’s work on COVID-19, please visit our web site.