Editor’s Note: The following essay is the fifth post in our week-long symposium on how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect family life.
There is little doubt that new relationships and casual hookups will decline during this pandemic. At the moment, it is difficult to enter the dating scene as bars, clubs, and restaurants have closed. After social distancing practices conclude, though, many people will likely become more vigilant about casual sex with multiple partners because of the risk of contagion. When concerns about contamination are dialed down, people naturally take more risks. But when such concerns are dialed up, people become more risk averse.
For example, cross-cultural research by Mark Schaller and Damian Murray from the University of British Columbia found that people in regions with greater infectious disease prevalence had more restrictive attitudes about casual sex. Furthermore, in a different study led by Laith Al-Shawaf, researchers induced pathogen disgust in participants by asking them to view disgust-provoking images (e.g., rotting food) or articles (e.g., a story about parasitic infection). These participants subsequently reported a reduced desire to sleep with someone they’d just met, relative to those who didn’t look at such images or read such articles. Another study led by Marjorie L. Prokosch at Texas Christian University found that in 2014, people who were more worried about the Ebola outbreak also reported a lower tolerance for risk. When people are faced with the possibility of infectious disease, they become more cautious.
At the same time, current relationships will likely strengthen. As W. Bradford Wilcox recently discussed in The Wall Street Journal, divorce rates are expected to decline during the pandemic. People are spending more time with their partners and children. They are having family dinners together. Furthermore, people will be more reluctant to end their current relationships because the risks of re-entering the dating scene are higher. The evolutionary psychologist Corey Fincher and his colleagues wrote,
the behaviors that define individualism may also enhance the likelihood of pathogen transmission, and thus may be functionally maladaptive under conditions in which pathogens are highly prevalent. By contrast, the behaviors that define collectivism may function in the service of antipathogen defense, and thus be especially adaptive under conditions of high pathogen prevalence.
We are currently experiencing high pathogen prevalence. As a consequence, people will likely become less self-centered in their approach to relationships.
Rob Henderson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, where he studies as a Gates Cambridge Scholar. He obtained a B.S. in Psychology from Yale University, and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force.