Wildfires should be considered a top threat to survival of species

A post-fire landscape in Kangaroo Island, Australia, evidence that wildfires have become larger and more severe in already fire-prone regions. (Photo Credit: Luke Kelly/University of Melbourne)

A new study by 27 prominent scientists from around the world — including UCLA’s Morgan Tingley — emphasizes the need to include fire among the list of potential threats to the survival of plant and animal species.

Traditionally,  fires have been viewed as a standard part of ecological cycles, necessary for species to survive and breed. But with increases in the frequency and severity of major wildfires, the way scientists view fires might need to change.

“If you ask a random scientist what the major threats are to biodiversity, they will generally list three: climate change, land use change, and invasive species,” said Tingley, a UCLA professor of ecology and a member of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Undoubtedly, that’s true. What we’re seeing here is that fire should be included on the list.”

The paper, published in the journal Science, also offers strategies to manage fires more successfully.

The authors write that wildfires have become larger and more severe in already-fire-prone areas such as California and Australia, and that they are occurring in new regions — including the Arctic tundra and tropical forests of Asia and South America. At the same time, fire is disappearing from environments that depend on fires, like the grasslands of North America and Brazil.

The researchers determined that changes in fire activity around the world are a threat to 15% of species already categorized as in danger of extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, including koalas and orangutans.

Tingley said the more diverse a system is, the faster it can bounce back from ecological disruptions like wildfires.

“The more species you have packed into an area, the more resilient that area is,” he said. “We want a forest that has burned to become a healthy, beautiful forest of mature trees down the line. One of the ways that happens is by attracting biodiversity to it. If you can attract birds to an area after a fire, you’re going to get more seed dispersal. You’re going to get more nutrient cycling. You’re going to get more decomposition.”

The 2020 Apple Fire in Riverside County, California, burned more that 33,000 acres. (Photo Credit: Brody Hessin)

The paper’s lead author, University of Melbourne professor Luke Kelly, said he’d never seen fires like this year’s Australian bushfires.

“I stood on a ridgeline looking out across the landscape and, almost as far as the eye could see, all living vegetation had been consumed,” Kelly said. “Scientists rarely use the term ‘unprecedented’ but it’s a good way to describe the total area burnt in 2019–20 in eastern Australia. I’d never seen anything like it.”

The paper also recommends improvements to fire management practices.

One problem with existing strategies, they write, is that the combined forces of climate change, human development, past fire suppression efforts and invasive species are changing the way fires behave. The outcome came into stark relief during California’s 2020 wildfire season, which burned twice the acreage of any other season in recorded history.

Fire management typically focuses on protecting people and property, but neglects the broader ecosystems in which human communities exist. And wildfires are often managed the same way across ecosystems, even though fire behaves in different ways. In the Northern California, for example, the coniferous Sierra Nevada experiences frequent surface fires, while coastal shrublands in the southern part of the state experience infrequent but high-intensity fires.

Those differences are mirrored in regions around the world.

One recommendation is that fire management incorporate more ecological knowledge. But that doesn’t need to come at the cost of protecting human life, said Alexandra Syphard, a co-author of the paper and the chief scientist at Vertus Wildfire, a San Francisco-based insurer.

“If there are two different actions that result in equal benefits to humans, but one has ecological costs and the other doesn’t, a fire manager without an understanding of biodiversity may unintentionally choose the most ecological harmful one,” Syphard said.

In practice, this might mean letting small, natural fires burn to clear dead vegetation from the forest floor and make room for new plants to sprout. It also means passing zoning laws to prevent development in fire-prone areas.

Although ecosystems react differently to fire, they are also rapidly being altered by climate change and other human impacts. Some wildfire ecosystems are becoming more like others, so the paper recommends that experts around the world collaborate more to share effective strategies.

“Understanding the complexities from a global perspective helps to get a better sense of what is unique and what is general,” Tingley said. “It helps us understand if there are approaches people are taking in other areas that could be really important here.”

This article, written by Sonia Aronson, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A graphic of the predictive model.

UCLA model ID’s areas that should have priority for vaccine, other COVID-19 help

The predictive model can guide public health officials and leaders across the nation in harnessing local data that can help prevent infections and save lives, the UCLA researchers say. (Photo Credit: UCLA CNK-BRITE)

To help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives, UCLA public health and urban planning experts have developed a predictive model that pinpoints which populations in which neighborhoods of Los Angeles County are most at risk of becoming infected.

The researchers hope the new model, which can be applied to other counties and jurisdictions as well, will assist decision makers, public health officials and scientists in effectively and equitably implementing vaccine distribution, testing, closures and reopenings, and other virus-mitigation measures.

The model maps Los Angeles County neighborhood by neighborhood, based on four important indicators known to significantly increase a person’s medical vulnerability to COVID-19 infection — preexisting medical conditions, barriers to accessing health care, built-environment characteristics and socioeconomic challenges.

The research data demonstrate that neighborhoods characterized by significant clustering of racial and ethnic minorities, low-income households and unmet medical needs are most vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, specifically areas in and around South Los Angeles and the eastern portion of the San Fernando Valley. Communities along the coast and in the northwestern part of the county, which are disproportionately white and higher-income, were found to be the least vulnerable.

“The model we have includes specific resource vulnerabilities that can guide public health officials and local leaders across the nation to harness already available local data to determine which groups in which neighborhoods are most vulnerable and how to prevent new infections to save lives,” said research author Vickie Mays, a professor of psychology in the UCLA College and of health policy and management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

Mays, who also directs the National Institutes of Health–funded UCLA BRITE Center for Science, Research and Policy, worked with urban planner Paul Ong, director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge, to develop the indicators model, along with study co-authors Chhandara Pech and Nataly Rios Gutierrez. The maps were created by Abigail Fitzgibbon.

Utilizing data from the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research’s California Health Interview Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the researchers were able to determine how the four vulnerability indicators differentially predicted which racial and ethnic groups in Los Angeles County were the most vulnerable to infection based on their geographical residence.

Racial and ethnic groups with the highest vulnerability

Preexisting conditions. The authors found that 73% of Black residents live in neighborhoods with the highest rates of preexisting health conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease, as well as poor overall health and food insecurity. This was followed by 70% of Latinos and 60% of Cambodians, Hmongs and Laotians, or CHL. Conversely, 60% of white residents live in areas with low or the lowest vulnerability.

Barriers to accessing services. Forty percent of Latinos, 29% of Blacks, 22% of CHL and 16% of “other Asians” reside in neighborhoods with the greatest barriers to health care, characterized by high proportions of non–U.S. citizens, poor English-language ability, a lack of access to computer broadband service, lower rates of health insurance and poor access to vehicles for medical purposes. Only 7% of whites live in these neighborhoods.

Built-environment risk. Sixty-three percent of CHL, 55% of Latinos, 53% of Blacks and 32% of whites live areas considered to be at high or the highest vulnerability due to built-environment challenges, which include high population density, crowded housing and a lack of parks and open spaces.

Social vulnerability. According to the Centers for Disease Control, neighborhoods with high social vulnerability are characterized by lower socioeconomic status and education attainment, a higher prevalence of single-parent and multigenerational households, greater housing density, poorer English-language ability and a lack of access to vehicles, among other factors. While only 8% of whites live in these neighborhoods, 42% of both Blacks and Latinos do, as do 38% of CHL.

How the model can help with COVID-19–mitigation efforts

“When the pandemic hit, we were slowed down by a lack of science and a lack of understanding of the ways in which health disparities in the lives of some of our most vulnerable populations made their risk of COVID-19 infection even greater,” Mays said. “We thought elderly and people in nursing homes were the most vulnerable, yet we found that lacking a number of social resources contributes to a greater likelihood of getting infected as well.”

► Read an interview with Mays on the how COVID-19 is affecting Black Americans and how better data can help prevent its spread.

And while nationwide statistics have shown that the virus has had a disproportionate effect on low-income communities and communities of color, knowing precisely which populations are the most vulnerable and where new infections are likely to occur is critical information in determining how to allocate scarce resources and when to open or close areas, Mays and Ong said.

If, for example, English-language ability is a barrier to accessing health information and services in a vulnerable neighborhood, health officials should develop campaigns in Spanish or another appropriate language highlighting the availability of testing, the researchers stress. If access to a car is a barrier for families in an at-risk area, walk-up testing sites should be made available. When crowded housing in a high-risk neighborhood is the predominant housing stock, testing resources should be set up for entire households and hotel vouchers made available to help with quarantining after a positive test.

The data can also provide critical knowledge and insights to social service providers, emergency agencies and volunteers on where to direct their time and resources, such as where to set up distribution sites for food and other necessities. And importantly, identifying the areas and populations with the highest vulnerability will help decision-makers equitably prioritize vaccine-distribution plans to include the most vulnerable early.

In the longer term, the researchers say, the model will also provide valuable information to urban planners so that they can target specific areas for the development of less-dense housing and more parks and open spaces, creating healthier neighborhoods that can better withstand future pandemics while promoting equity in long-term health outcomes.

This article, written by Elizabeth Kivowitz Boatright-Simon, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

12 UCLA College scientists among world’s most influential researchers

A photo of a researcher in the lab.

A researcher in the lab. Photo Credit: iStock.com

Thirty-six UCLA scholars have been named as the world’s most influential scientific researchers. Twelve are from UCLA College.

Clarivate released its annual list of the most highly cited researchers, which includes dozens of UCLA scientists across various disciplines. The list is compiled by the Institute for Scientific Information at Clarivate using data based on scholarly publication counts and citation indexes. The selected researchers wrote publications that ranked in the top 1% by citations in their field for that year, according to the Web of Science citation index.

Current UCLA College faculty members and researchers who were named to the list, noted with their primary UCLA research field or fields, are:

For the full list and article, written by Max Gordy, please visit the UCLA Newsroom

A photo of a street sign named "Kindness."

UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute sees ‘contagious kindness’ in action

A photo of a street sign named "Kindness."

“We laid out a framework for understanding why witnessing kindness motivates being kind,” said UCLA’s Daniel Fessler. (Photo Credit: iStock.com/solitude72)

Today is World Kindness Day, and despite the current state of political tension, kindness is pretty easy to perpetuate, a UCLA study reveals.

“Each of us is kind to someone, and therefore have the potential to be kind to everyone, even those with whom we differ politically,” said Daniel Fessler, director of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, housed in the UCLA College division of social sciences.

The first study from the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute, which has been shared on the peer-reviewed open access scientific journal PLOS ONE, is about kindness and how it spreads — and the bottom line is that kindness really is contagious.

Witnessing an act of kindness, even between strangers, can make us feel better about our world, and make us more inclined to perform an act of kindness ourselves. Social scientists call this state “elevation,” an uplifting emotion often accompanied by a warm feeling in the chest, goosebumps, and sometimes even tears.

These aren’t assumptions or nice generalizations — researchers at the institute have proven the effects of acts of kindness in their initial study, first shared with peers in December 2019.

In the study, Kindness Institute researchers set out to test the theory and uncover evidence of how and why the feeling state of elevation causes contagious kindness — or what researchers call “prosocial contagion” (where witnessing an act of kindness makes one predisposed to also act in a similar way).

The project produced a sophisticated model of the biological logic underlying this emotion system. It also required developing new measurement tools to test predictions about how people might act and whether prosocial contagion occurred.

A snapshot of the findings is telling:

– In-person experiments showed people an uplifting video and allowed them to choose to donate money to a children’s hospital. Many people did just that.

– Online experiments used the same video and asked respondents if they would be inclined to match charitable donations if it was offered by their employer. Most said yes.

Testing contagious kindness
In the study’s experiments, participants were asked to watch an uplifting viral video called “Unsung Hero,” which follows a young man as he goes through his daily routine, stopping often to help others. As he goes along, people in his life who witness his behavior start to react positively and show appreciation.

“We laid out a framework for understanding why witnessing kindness motivates being kind, and why some people are more strongly influenced by such observations than others,” said Fessler, who also is a professor of anthropology at UCLA.

The project included 8,000 people who participated in 15 experiments — 11 conducted online and four in person via on-the-street interviews in Los Angeles. Half of the participants watched the “Unsung Hero” video. The others watched a control video of a man performing impressive parkour stunts in a show of athleticism.

Those who participated in person received five $1 bills as payment for their time. At the end of the interaction they were given the opportunity to make an anonymous donation to UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital via a padded envelope handed to them by the researcher, who turned away while respondents chose how much money, if any, to put inside before sealing it.

Online responders were instead given a hypothetical scenario: If your employer were to match donations to a worthy cause, would you be inclined to give?

In-person participants who viewed the “Unsung Hero” video gave 25% more to the charity than those who watched the athletic-stunt video. Online respondents who viewed the video showing kindness in action were significantly more likely to hypothetically commit to charitable giving than those who viewed the alternate athletic video (67% versus 47%).

“Both the online and in-person methods produced very similar results, which replicate previous studies indicating that witnessing exceptional prosocial behavior — or exceptional kindness — elicits the emotion of elevation, which in turn motivates further prosocial behavior by the witness,” said Adam Sparks, a UCLA postdoctoral scholar who led the study in collaboration with Fessler and Colin Holbrook, an assistant professor of cognitive and information sciences at UC Merced.

Testing kindness inclinations
These study experiments also supported the researchers’ new theory about why some people experience elevation more strongly than others.

“We all have assumptions and expectations about how other people are likely to behave, and these assumptions guide our emotional responses,” Sparks said. “Some of us tend toward an idealistic attitude — that is, we assume other people generally behave kindly and do not try to exploit one another. Others of us have a more cynical attitude — that is, we assume other people generally behave less cooperatively and more selfishly.”

Before participants watched either video, they answered questions that measured where their attitude fell on this idealism-cynicism spectrum. Participants who were more idealistic reported that the video caused stronger feelings of elevation than did more cynical participants, in line with the researchers’ theory.

“Very little previous research on elevation has investigated why some people experience this emotion more than others,” Sparks said. “Our theory and evidence suggest that the expectation that other people can be kind is almost a prerequisite for experiencing elevation.”

Fessler is hopeful that research such as that being undertaken at the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute will help us understand how we can move forward together, even after a divisive election.

Debate and discussion from a position of kindness are how new approaches develop and solutions arise, he added.

“Ultimately we can all see in one another our shared humanity,” Fessler said.

This article, written by Jessica Wolf and Melissa Abraham, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom.

Center for Community Engagement Debuts New Name, new Website, and Campus Database for Community Partnerships

Jessa Calderon (Tongva and Chumash) Photo credit: Kote Melendez

The UCLA Center for Community Learning has a new name.

As of November 10, the Center will be known as the UCLA Center for Community Engagement, reflecting the Center’s continued goal to connect UCLA students with community partners to provide both a learning experience for students and a benefit to the communities, locally and globally.

The Center for Community Engagement promotes and supports community-engaged research, teaching and learning in partnership with communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles, regionally, nationally and globally. The Center facilitates faculty and student work that integrates sustained, reciprocal engagement with the public and helps transform UCLA’s mission to support the cocreation, codissemination, copreservation and coapplication of knowledge.

A photo of Gaye Theresa Johnson, meeting with cilantro workers.

A recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Community-Engaged Scholars, Gaye Theresa Johnson, meeting with cilantro workers as part of her ongoing community-engaged research on food justice. (Photo Credit: UCLA)

The Center is tasked by the Undergraduate Council to administer the university’s “community-engaged course” framework. It does this by supporting faculty across the university who are interested in developing such community-engaged courses, and ultimately approving the “XP” course suffix that identifies these courses.

The Center also coordinates the Chancellor’s Awards for Community-Engaged Scholars, a program that recognizes outstanding scholarship and supports faculty to develop new courses to integrate undergraduates into their ongoing community-engaged research. The Center’s student-facing programming includes 195CE internship courses, the community engagement and social change minor, the Astin Community Scholars research program, the Changemaker Scholars program, and AmeriCorps volunteer programs.

The name change was inspired by Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Emily A. Carter at a meeting last year with the vice chancellors and Chancellor Gene Block. Center for Community Learning director Shalom Staub and Vice Provost for International Studies and Global Engagement Cindy Fan gave a presentation about UCLA’s new strategic priorities for local and global engagement.

Staub said Carter took note of the reciprocal nature of the Center’s community-engaged programs. She noticed that the Center’s name only notes the value for student learning but ignores the ways that the work is intentionally designed to create value for community partners. The name “Center for Community Learning” didn’t convey both sides, she said.

“This name change highlights the importance of meaningful engagement as the cornerstone of effective community-based research and education,” Carter said. “It is a stronger reflection of the center’s philosophy and work, and it emphasizes the idea that our relationships with communities and organizations throughout Los Angeles are true reciprocal partnerships.”

Dean of Undergraduate Education Adriana Galvan said the new name represents the meaningful learning and authentic community-engaged experiences students have with community partners as well as UCLA’s commitment to creativity, community engagement, research, and learning across disciplines.

“Community engagement is a crucial ingredient to the undergraduate experience because it brings to life the learning that happens in a classroom and ensures that our students have the opportunity to reflect on the ways in which the university connects to the broader community,” she said.

In addition to the name change, the Center launched a new website and will soon debut a new online database of community engaged work at UCLA. Through an online platform called Collaboratory, community-centered research or teaching at UCLA will be logged, categorized and searchable, allowing users to see how community-engaged work at UCLA is connected across campus and across community partner organizations.

“Rather than talk abstractly about community-engaged work, or rather than describe just the work of a specific course, this is going to allow us to aggregate and to visualize community-engaged work at UCLA,” Staub said. “The scale and scope of this work is going to start to become much more real.”

This article was written by Robin Migdol. 

 

 

Why is progress so slow for Latinos in Hollywood?

After “One Day at a Time” was canceled by Netflix in 2019, fans launched a campaign to save the show, which follows a Cuban-American family. The program was later picked up by ViacomCBS and carried on Pop TV and TVLand. (Photo Credit: Costco)

Although minorities overall are becoming better represented in the entertainment industry, that progress largely hasn’t touched Latino actors, writers, directors and executives.

An open letter from 270 Latino TV and film writers and creators, published Oct. 15 in the Los Angeles Times, laid bare the growing frustration with that phenomenon. And the statistics in the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report back it up.

Despite making up nearly 17% of the U.S. populace, Latinos are underrepresented in nearly every critical job category tracked by the report, the latest of which was published today.

Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center, said decades of attempts at media reform and market-based arguments haven’t yielded significant gains for Latinos in film and TV.

“The approach to media reform over the last 50-some years has always been either the carrot or the stick,” said Noriega, a media scholar who teaches in the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. “Initially, it was the stick — the laws and regulations around equal employment opportunity. And because Latinos go to more movies than any group and watch more TV than any group, the carrot was, ‘Here are things you can do and these things will enhance your ability to make money.’”

Advocates and activists haven’t yet come up with a method or message that has led to tangible improvements, he said.

For minorities overall, the most progress has come in acting roles, but the numbers remain stubbornly stagnant for Latino actors.

► Related: Read more about the Hollywood Diversity Report’s analysis of jobs in TV

According to the latest Hollywood Diversity Report, Latinos’ share of lead acting roles was 6.6% on scripted broadcast shows, 5.5% in cable and 4.0% in digital in 2018–19. Among all TV acting roles in the past two years, Latinos’ best representation was in broadcast shows during the 2017–18 season, but even then, they made up just 6.4% of casts.

That’s scant progress since the 2012–13 television season, when Latino actors claimed 4.0% of acting roles in broadcast shows, 3.0% on cable and 12.0% on digital.

And all minority groups, including Latinos, are underrepresented in TV writing, directing and show creator jobs, according to the recent report.

Noriega said the rationale for improving Latinos’ representation on TV is tied to media’s critical role in fostering understanding across racial and ethnic groups.

“If you’re in California, how do you know anything about the Midwest or the South?” he asked. “How do you know that the people there are kind of like you in certain ways? You can travel there, and spend time and learn firsthand. Or you can watch movies, the nightly news, sitcoms and documentaries. You can look at things that come into your home that represent other parts of the world beyond where you live.”

For example, he said, Puerto Ricans are rarely depicted in film and on TV — which likely contributes to many Americans’ lack of understanding that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory or that its residents are U.S. citizens who nevertheless lack the full rights of citizenship.

Today’s analysis of the television industry is the second installment of the 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report; part one, focusing on movies, was published in February.

That report found that Latinos held 4.6% of movie acting roles in 2019. Of the 145 top-grossing films in 2019, Latinos had writing credits on just 2.8% and directing credits on only 2.7%. Although both figures were higher than they were for the top-grossing films of 2018, the percentages are still far short of Latinos’ overall share of the population.

Noriega said the lack of representation in some cases — and the way in which minorities are portrayed on screen in others — is especially concerning because of how media shapes people’s impressions.

“There are more portrayals of African-Americans as a percentage than in society,” he said. “But it has been largely negative representation. It’s largely about crime, both in the news and in entertainment.

“And you will rarely see Latinos in the media; you’ll rarely read about them in newspaper. They don’t exist. That makes it a lot easier for a government to decide that they are going to put small children from that group in cages.”

This article, written by Jessica Wolf, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom

Birthrates, marriage, gender roles will change dramatically in post-pandemic world, scientists predict

Marriage rates will plummet and people will put off having children in a virus-plagued world, potentially leading to a drop in nations’ populations, UCLA professor Martie Haselton and colleagues say. (Photo Credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock.com)

COVID-19 and America’s response to it are likely to profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships and gender roles for years, say 12 prominent scientists and authors who analyzed 90 research studies and used their expertise to evaluate our reaction to the pandemic and predict its aftermath.

The group, which included three UCLA researchers, foresees enduring psychological fallout from the crisis, even among those who haven’t been infected. Their predictions and insights, published Oct. 22 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, include:

– Planned pregnancies will decrease in a disease-ridden world, birthrates will drop, and many couples will postpone marriage, said senior author and UCLA professor of psychology and communication studies Martie Haselton.

– People who are single are less likely to start new relationships. Women who can afford to be on their own are likely to stay single longer, Haselton said.

– With children home due to the pandemic, women are spending more time providing care and schooling, are less available for paying work and may come to rely more on male partners as breadwinners, Haselton said. This will push us toward socially conservative gender norms and potentially result in a backslide in gender equality.

– Unlike many past crises, this pandemic is not bringing people closer together and, despite some exceptions, it is not producing an increase in kindness, empathy or compassion, especially in the U.S., said lead author Benjamin Seitz, a UCLA psychology doctoral student with expertise in behavioral neuroscience.

– “Our species is not wired for seeking a precise understanding of the world as it actually is,” the authors write, and our tribal predispositions toward groupthink are resulting in the large-scale spread of misinformation We tend to seek out data that supports our opinions, and we too often distrust health experts, they say.

“The psychological, social and societal consequences of COVID-19 will be very long-lasting,” Haselton said. “The longer COVID-19 continues, the more entrenched these changes are likely to be.”

COVID-19: A worldwide social experiment

As marriage rates plummet and people postpone reproduction in a virus-plagued world, some nations’ populations will shrink and fall precipitously below “replacement level,” the authors write. These birthrate drops, in turn, can have cascading social and economic consequences, affecting job opportunities, straining the ability of countries to provide a safety net for their aging populations and potentially leading to global economic contraction.

Research has shown that even before the pandemic, women were more stressed than men by family and job responsibilities. Now they are managing more household responsibilities related to child care and education. In medicine and other sciences, women scholars are already publishing substantially less research than they did a year ago, while men are showing increased productivity, Haselton said.

She and her co-authors foresee a shift toward social conservatism. A consequence of the pandemic could be less tolerance for legal abortion and the rights for sexual minorities who don’t align with traditional gender roles. In addition, in a time of economic inequality, many women will sexualize themselves more to compete with one another for desirable men, Haselton said.

People who meet online will often be disappointed when they meet in person. “Does a couple have chemistry? You can’t tell that over Zoom,” Haselton said. In new relationships, people will miss cues, especially online, and the disappointing result will often be overidealization of a potential partner — seeing the person the way you want the person to be rather than the way the person actually is.

The pandemic has become a worldwide social experiment, say the authors, whose areas of expertise include psychology, neuroscience, behavioral science, evolutionary biology, medicine, evolutionary social science and economics.

An evolutionary struggle

For the study, the authors used an evolutionary perspective to highlight the strategies the virus has evolved to use against us, the strategies we possess to combat it and the strategies we need to acquire.

Humans today are the products of social and genetic evolution in environments that look very little like our current world. These “evolutionary mismatches” are likely responsible for our frequent lack of alarm in response to the pandemic, the scientists write.

Americans in particular value individuality and the ability to challenge authority. “This combination does not work especially well in a pandemic,” Seitz said. “This virus is exposing us and our weaknesses.”

Haselton agreed, calling the virus “wily” for its ability to infect us through contact with people we love who seem to be healthy. “Our social features that define much of what it is to be human make us a prime target for viral exploitation,” she said. “Policies asking us to isolate and distance profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships and gender roles.”

All infectious agents, including viruses, are under evolutionary pressure to manipulate the physiology and behavior of their hosts — in this case, us — in ways that enhance their survival and transmission. SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, may be altering human neural tissue to change our behavior, the authors say. It may be suppressing feelings of sickness, and perhaps even enhancing our social impulses, during times of peak transmissibility before symptoms appear. People who are infected but do not feel sick are more likely to go about their usual activities and come in contact with others whom they might infect.

Disgust is useful and motivates us to avoid people who display clear signs of disease — such as blood, pale skin, lesions, yellow eyes or a runny nose. But with COVID-19 infections, this is not what most people see. Family, friends, co-workers and strangers can look perfectly healthy and be asymptomatic for days without knowing they are infected, the authors note.

It may sound counterintuitive, but normal brain development requires exposure to a diverse set of microbes to help prepare younger animals for a range of pathogenic dangers they may encounter in adulthood. But safer-at-home and quarantine health measures have temporarily halted social activities that would otherwise bring millions of adolescents into contact with new microbes. As a result, children and adolescents whose immune systems and brains would, in normal times, be actively shaped by microbial exposures may be adversely impacted by this change, the scientists say.

By understanding how SARS-CoV-2 is evolving and having behavioral and psychological effects on us that enhance its transmission, we will be better able to combat it so it becomes less harmful and less lethal, the authors write.

Other co-authors of the study are Steven Pinker of Harvard University, bestselling author Sam Harris, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz of the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Paul Bloom of Yale University, Athena Aktipis of Arizona State University, David Buss of the University of Texas, Joe Alcock of the University of New Mexico, Michele Gelfand of the University of Maryland and David Sloan Wilson of the State University of New York at Binghamton.

This article, written by Stuart Wolpert, originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom