I have watched a lot of movies and television during this time of social distancing, and I feel about COVID-19 the same way I felt about the aliens in Independence Day, Thanos in Marvel’s Infinity War, and the Squid in the new HBO “Watchmen” series—genuinely hopeful. Although this could be a sign of my mental degradation from too much social isolation, research from social psychology suggests that we may someday look back on COVID-19 as the world’s unifying moment.

This research suggests that a common enemy can cause people who see themselves as belonging to warring and irreconcilable groups to regard themselves as united humans fighting together for an important cause.  Whether they’re facing the aliens in Independence Day, Agents of the Machine in The Matrix, the Wolf-Biederman comet in Deep Impact, or Skynet in the Terminator franchise, people who face a common threat sometimes stop seeing themselves as members of countries, races, or political groups and instead see themselves as humans united as one big group. For example, when participants in a study conducted by Flade, Klar, and Imhoff were reminded about a common threat they all faced, members of different groups felt unified as one group.

Could COVID-19 be a threat that unites us to focus on our shared identity?  COVID-19 doesn’t care about demographic characteristics; your sex, gender, and race or ethnicity matter little here. Socio-economic status certainly influences the impact of COVID-19 on people to some extent; people with greater resources have access to better healthcare (or any medicine), to testing, have more access to food and supplies, and can leave “hot spots” in an attempt to out-maneuver the virus, but wealth and status don’t make one immune from COVID-19. This virus—this brutal, awful, terrifying virus—which is devastating people’s lives both socially and economically is dangerous to us all. If we can think about ourselves as humans united against this common enemy, we might be able to bring the world together.

With more than 200 countries reporting the virus and the entire world focused on surviving this pandemic, there are already numerous examples of people seeing themselves as “we” rather than “us and them.” The New York Times reported that scientists from around the world are shattering borders and “creating a global collaboration unlike any in history” to understand COVID-19 and develop diagnostic tests, treatments, and vaccines. The United Nations reported that COVID-19 is the greatest challenge it has faced since its inception in 1945 and that “what the world needs now is solidarity.” The Director-General of the World Health Organization called on the G20 to “unite and fight against COVID-19.” When a Chinese company sent respirator masks to Italy in response to the crisis there, they covered the boxes with poetry from an Italian philosopher stating we are all “leaves from the same tree.” Similar responses can be seen at a local and individual level too. A “we are in this together” mentality has led neighbors to organize to check in on elderly residents in the community, people who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma to help find a treatment for the virus, and ordinary people to organize support for mutual aid groups and artists.

Of course, this common shared group identity is not the only outcome possible from this pandemic. For example, the United States has been criticized by other countries for scrambling to gather supplies intended for other countries, which certainly reflects more of an “us” mentality than a “we” one. There is also clear evidence of minority groups being unfairly blamed for the virus. Numerous factors will affect whether people and world leaders seize the opportunity for unity and then hold onto it after the crisis ends.

What is clear is that COVID-19 is a world-altering event. Lives will be lost and irrevocably altered both directly and indirectly from it. But it affects us all.

For that reason, perhaps we can hope.

For Further Reading

Crisp, R. J., Stone, C. H., & Hall, N. R. (2006). Recategorization and subgroup identification: Predicting and preventing threats from common ingroups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 32(2), 230-243.

Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., & Saguy, T. (2008). Another view of “we”: Majority and minority group perspectives on a common ingroup identity. European review of social psychology18(1), 296-330.

Riek, B. M., Mania, E. W., Gaertner, S. L., McDonald, S. A., & Lamoreaux, M. J. (2010). Does a common ingroup identity reduce intergroup threat?. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations13(4), 403-423.

Michael J. Bernstein is an Associate Professor of Social Psychology at Penn State University Abington. He studies social belonging, social ostracism, intergroup relations, face processing, and social cognition broadly.