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Being Pro-Social in a Time of Social Distance

Posted on 3/22/2020 3:07:43 PM by Bethany Van Brown, PhD

As a sociologist, I seek to understand how communities restore normalcy when there is a community-wide disruption like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and today, our all-consuming COVID-19 pandemic.

From 2006 to 2009, I had the opportunity to study at the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center. As a research assistant, I got to interview tugboat captains—on their tugboats—about the waterborne evacuation after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and I went to New Orleans many, many times after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood made their marks.

I learned right away that there are many myths about human behavior after disaster that some media outlets have unfortunately exploited. The most prominent myth is that people are more likely to behave badly, or as the literature describes it, “anti-socially.” This myth indicates that people only care about themselves, and thus act selfishly—they loot, steal, harm others, ignore the collective needs. We know from research, however, that the vast majority of people behave very well, or, “pro-socially.” Generally, people are selfless and go out of their way to help others, always keeping the collective needs in mind.

While I’ve certainly seen or heard some examples of what we might call “anti-social” behavior amidst our current COVID-19 disaster (e.g., the crowds of students on spring break who flocked to the shores of Clearwater Beach Florida, despite social distance warnings, before they were closed), I am seeing an overwhelming amount of pro-social behavior. People are making food and leaving it on their porches for children who lack food security, putting non-perishable food items in free little libraries, and making hand sanitizer at home and giving out to their mail delivery people. The list goes on and on.

Where I really see—and feel—such selfless behavior is right here in our Cabrini community, and I’m so incredibly proud to be part of it. Someone very wise said to me, “A pandemic calls for grace.” Indeed it does. A family gave a case of iced tea to Cabrini employees who were helping students move out this past weekend when the University had to close because of Gov. Wolf’s precautions to lessen the spread of the coronavirus. The Alumni Association was offering gas cards to students who had a long drive. Cabrini people are taking in students who have nowhere to go. And I know that the members of our administration are doing everything they can to ensure our seniors have the celebration they deserve, because they care so deeply.

Countless other “pro-social” acts have happened and are happening in our wonderful community because that’s who we are—we’re Cabrini. We’re kind and gracious during the best—and the worst—of times.


Read more about Cabrini's response to COVID-19.