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Did the pandemic make us all a little more generous?

Charitable donations increased as the coronavirus spread through communities, compared with areas that were less affected, a study showed

(Abbey Lossing for The Washington Post)

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New research suggests a bright spot amid the grimness of the past three years of pandemic life: Many people became more generous.

The finding, reported in Nature’s Scientific Reports, surprised scientists given that earlier research showed that people often become selfish in times of strife, marshaling their resources to protect themselves and their families.

While we all witnessed some of that behavior — remember the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer? — there’s also evidence that during the most difficult days of the pandemic, we leaned into our generous nature and took care of each other.

“We really didn’t know what to expect,” said Ariel Fridman, a University of California at San Diego doctoral candidate who led the study. “We see this as a silver lining. It gives you some faith in humanity.”

The finding that generosity increased during the pandemic stems from analyses of two separate data sets. The team first compared charitable giving trends in counties that experienced covid-19 deaths with those that did not. They also looked at how giving changed in individual counties before and after covid took hold in that area. Overall, they found that donations increased as the virus spread through a community compared with areas that were less affected.

And in controlled experiments, the researchers asked 1,000 people around the country to take part in a monthly game known as “the dictator” game. For the game, two people are randomly paired, and one is given $10. The person can keep all the money or share it with the stranger. Over several months, as covid began to spread, the researchers noticed that “the dictator” began sharing more of the wealth.

“This game is used as a measurement of generosity and social preferences,” said Fridman, whose research focuses on pro-social behavior, generosity and altruism. “We found that people gave more money to the partner they were randomly paired with when covid was more severe in their area.”

The researcher notes that neither data set extended past 2020, so the findings were for relatively early in the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the data don’t reveal the reasons behind the participants’ giving habits. But the researchers speculated that a concept called “catastrophe compassion” had taken hold. In addition, many people may have felt powerless during the pandemic and turned to charitable giving as a way to cope.

“Covid was a time we felt like we didn’t have a lot of control about what was going on in our life,” Fridman said. “Donating may give people a sense of agency.”

An inclusive holiday gift guide

It’s the giving season, and we’ve got a brand-new gift guide to celebrate the people in your life who have a chronic illness or disability. Amanda Morris, a disability reporter, has compiled our first disability gift guide, a creative list of gift ideas for people with a range of conditions or disabilities. There’s a customizable amputee teddy bear for children who might benefit from seeing their limb differences represented in their toys. You’ll find a special shirt for people undergoing chemotherapy, an ostomy bag cover and jeans without seams in the back for people who sit in wheelchairs.

Many products in this guide are made by people with disabilities, who are more likely to face job discrimination or work limitations that can restrict their income.

I’m so proud of this guide and believe that even if you don’t know someone with a chronic illness or disability, you will learn a lot simply by reading it. Amanda notes that people with disabilities like receiving many of the same gifts everyone else does but that “giving a gift that specifically considers a person’s disability can be a great way to make them feel seen and supported.”

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