As the number of our posts on attitude changes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic reaches double digits, astute readers will note that there are some apparent inconsistencies emerging in the reports. For example, the public feels a greater disconnect with big corporations, but also greater trust for “Big Pharma”.They are more supportive of local government, but also more polarized about science and the level of precautions being recommended. Society is complex, and sometimes trends moving in opposite directions can happen at that same time. For example, I’ve previously written that the contagion is prompting a tendency to become more xenophobic or fearful of outsiders, but the study I am looking at today shows a countervailing tendency toward greater solidarity.
Solidarity, or the feeling of “We’re all in this together” that prioritizes common interests over one’s own, was a focus of a large-scale study of American attitudes conducted by researchers from Norway. That team (Cappelen, Falch, Sørensen, & Tungodden, 2020) looked at the ways “the pandemic may alter the moral and political landscape in the United States” and specifically at support for solidarity, nationalism, and fairness. That matters to litigation because in some ways, a trial calls for opposite of selfishness in asking jurors to step in and play the social role of considering and caring about someone else’s problems. In this post, I will take a look at the study as well as its implications for the attitudes jurors bring to trial.
The Research: More Solidarity, But Less Concern for Inequality Based on Luck
The research team from the Norwegian School of Economics focused on U.S. attitudes, using a sizable sample of more than 8,000 Americans who completed the study at the end of March and the beginning of April. Some participants were asked questions about the Coronavirus in order to plant that thought in their heads, and some were not, and then participants were asked questions about their moral beliefs and attitudes. Specifically, the researchers focused on three types of attitudes:
- Solidarity, or the degree to which society’s problems have priority over one’s own problems
- Nationalism, or the degree to which one’s own country’s problems have priority over global problems
- And fairness, or the degree to which we tolerate inequality based on chance or luck.
While the team found no interaction between coronavirus reminders and nationalism, they did find strong relationships involving the other two attitudes. Thinking about the crisis leads research participants to prioritize society’s problems over their own. Interestingly, the direction of the shift is the same for all sub-groups, independent of age, gender, income, education, and political affiliation. But the distribution of attitude itself is not even, but is more common in women and those with higher education, and less common with Republicans and retirees.
The researchers also found that coronavirus reminders makes people more likely to tolerate unequal outcomes when those outcomes are perceived as being due to luck. Those high in that tolerance are the ones that are called the “stuff happens” jurors who feel that a bad outcome alone is not enough to warrant a search for justice. These attitudes are also not evenly distributed, with those with a high income, Republicans, and retirees are all being more accepting of unequal outcomes, and females being less accepting
The Meaning and Implications of Greater Solidarity and Less Fairness
There are reasons why reminding people of the coronavirus would lead to a preference for solidarity or greater collective good. The authors explain, “The increase in solidarity may reflect that the crisis makes salient the selfless behavior of others in society, but it may also reflect an increased recognition of our mutual dependence.”
This is consistent with other research cited in the article showing that in times of violence or war, people become more altruistic. That finding might seem at odds with the second conclusion regarding a de-emphasis on the fairness of equal outcomes. While crises may bring us together, generally, there are also findings that during recessions, we become more selfish. The pandemic and its associated economic disruptions may provide the reminder that luck isn’t uniform and make people more accepting of fate. Or the tendency toward “belief in a just world” might encourage people to treat luck as controllable, reinforcing the “Things happen for a reason” mode of thinking.
For litigators, the findings regarding greater solidarity reinforce the wisdom of looking at the reasons why your preferred verdict isn’t just correct or legally justified, but is also socially beneficial. For example, it helps everyone when we are able to hold large companies accountable, or able to reward responsible behavior and discourage frivolous lawsuits. And the findings on greater tolerance for unequal outcomes is a reminder that we can’t just assume that “justice” is a universal motivator, particularly when people often want to believe that bad luck is somehow earned.
Whenever courts do get back to in-person jury trials, it will be essential to account for the ways that this once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) disruption has changed the way our jury pools are thinking.
Other Posts on COVID Attitude Changes:
Cappelen, A. W., Falch, R., Sørensen, E. Ø., & Tungodden, B. (2020). Solidarity and fairness in times of crisis. NHH Dept. of Economics Discussion Paper, (06).
Image Credit: 123rf.com, used under license