It has been observed that tragedy, or simply the threat of an impending one, somehow elicits a bonding among human beings. People who were fighting against one another, whether it is for wealth, power, status, etc., seem to come together to help each other get through tragic conditions like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, viral outbreaks, and so on. Even during the current CCP coronavirus epidemic, the willingness to help each other has been strong.
Unified by tragedy
Rebecca Solnit is the author of A Paradise Built in Hell and has studied human responses to some of the world’s greatest tragedies, including the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers, deadly earthquakes in San Francisco, the 1917 Halifax explosion, and so on. Analyzing all these tragedies, Solnit found a common thread.
“The history of disaster… demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection, as well as for purpose and meaning… [A dangerous situation] drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save our neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living,” she writes in the book (Harvard Business Review).
Now, this does not mean that humanity is somehow capable of only connecting to one another through sorrow and calamities. What it means is that our desire to help overrides the threats we face and that we instinctively end up thinking about the “greater good.” Such an attitude can set the foundation for a more cohesive community and even bring benefits for those who worked to help the community at a critical time. An example of such an outcome would be the Hancock Bank in Gulfport, Mississippi.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, many people in the community were left with no money or support to get through the situation. Employees of the Hancock Bank disbursed more than US$42 million to the people, only recording these transactions on scraps of paper. After the chaos settled down and the community was back to normal, residents came up to the bank and gave back everything they had borrowed. Over 99.5 percent of the money that was distributed by the bank was recouped. What’s more, many people even opened a new account at the bank. In the immediate year after the storm, deposits in the bank grew by US$1.5 billion.
A study that looked at ethics from 60 societies, with data collected from about 600 sources, found that there were basically seven moral rules followed by human beings — help your family, help the group you belong to, be brave, return favors, divide resources, respect other people’s property, and show respect to superiors. Tragic circumstances do tend to evoke most of these moral values as people seek a way to unite and survive the aftermath. So in a way, bad times can bring out the best in people.
Stress and trust
When human beings are under threat, their tendency to cooperate and trust others shoots up. This was confirmed by a study that observed a group of male participants in which the subjects underwent a stress procedure. They then played an economics game in which their financial profit depended on their choices. The participants could choose one of the two — cooperate with others or not.
“The researchers found that, rather than becoming more aggressive after stress, men in the stress group actually became more trusting of others, displayed more trustworthy behavior themselves, and were more likely to cooperate and share profits,” according to Scientific American.
It is theorized that one of the main reasons why stress might trigger cooperative behavior is that these people have gone through so much trauma that they want to connect with someone and feel lively. Even factors like the strength of your body’s immunity and longevity are linked to how excellent your social connections are.