Repository logo

How evolutionary behavioural sciences can help us understand behaviour in a pandemic.

Published version

Repository DOI



Change log


Brandl, Eva 
Campbell, OLK 
Du, Juan 


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought science into the public eye and to the attention of governments more than ever before. Much of this attention is on work in epidemiology, virology and public health, with most behavioural advice in public health focusing squarely on 'proximate' determinants of behaviour. While epidemiological models are powerful tools to predict the spread of disease when human behaviour is stable, most do not incorporate behavioural change. The evolutionary basis of our preferences and the cultural evolutionary dynamics of our beliefs drive behavioural change, so understanding these evolutionary processes can help inform individual and government decision-making in the face of a pandemic. Lay summary: The COVID-19 pandemic has brought behavioural sciences into the public eye: Without vaccinations, stopping the spread of the virus must rely on behaviour change by limiting contact between people. On the face of it, "stop seeing people" sounds simple. In practice, this is hard. Here we outline how an evolutionary perspective on behaviour change can provide additional insights. Evolutionary theory postulates that our psychology and behaviour did not evolve to maximize our health or that of others. Instead, individuals are expected to act to maximise their inclusive fitness (i.e, spreading our genes) - which can lead to a conflict between behaviours that are in the best interests for the individual, and behaviours that stop the spread of the virus. By examining the ultimate explanations of behaviour related to pandemic-management (such as behavioural compliance and social distancing), we conclude that "good of the group" arguments and "one size fits all" policies are unlikely to encourage behaviour change over the long-term. Sustained behaviour change to keep pandemics at bay is much more likely to emerge from environmental change, so governments and policy makers may need to facilitate significant social change - such as improving life experiences for disadvantaged groups.



COVID-19, behaviour change, behavioural ecology, cultural evolution, lockdown, social distancing

Journal Title

Evol Med Public Health

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



Oxford University Press (OUP)