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For psychologists, the pandemic has shown people’s capacity for cooperation

Posted at Jan 03, 2021

I have worked as a psychologist for over 40 years, but Covid-19 has projected the analysis of human behaviour into public discourse in a way I have never before witnessed. The spread of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease Covid-19, depends upon physical proximity between people. Consequently, fighting the infection means changing fundamental aspects of our everyday routines. We have all been challenged to reduce the social contacts and intimacies that we so cherish as social animals.

Covid has done much to further the study of behaviour by bringing it into people’s homes and day-to-day conversations. In countless radio phone-ins and television news programmes, magazine articles and newspaper reports, discussions of the bases of adherence and resistance to Covid regulations have become commonplace. Most obviously, there has been intense scrutiny over the extent of our psychological resilience, whether we are able to adapt our behaviour to tough times, to give up the things we value – and if so for how long.

But if the debate has been, in part, about the general nature of human psychology it has centred equally on the social structural determinants of behaviour – issues such as our general relationship with authority, the role of enforcement and punishment in securing compliance, the importance of trust and confidence, how that trust is achieved and, perhaps more pertinently, how it is undermined (say by trips to Barnard Castle to test one’s eyesight). The stuff of the tutorial room has become the talk of the town. Within just a few months, Covid has more effectively demonstrated the importance of the social sciences to a sceptical public and a dismissive government than years of campaigning.

Another feature of the pandemic has been to remind us that the study of behaviour and the study of psychology are not at all the same thing and to show us the dangers of conflating the two. Psychologists often refer to the “fundamental attribution error”: a tendency to explain what people do in terms of their individual characteristics. So, for instance, if people fail to follow Covid restrictions, it is assumed that they are not motivated to do so. It follows from this that they are culpable for their actions and deserve punishment for their violations (a line of argument often pursued by the government).

The problem with this is that it ignores the fact that behaviour is constrained as much by social and material factors as by psychological will. There have been claims that in the recent mass testing in Liverpool, only 4% of those from the most deprived boroughs came forward. This links to the fact that 80% of claims for the self-isolation payment were refused. Poorer people could quite literally not afford to discover that they were infected. The obvious answer is not to blame them or threaten them with sanctions, but rather to provide the support necessary for people to do what is asked of them.

Throughout the pandemic, it has been abundantly clear that the psychologisation of behaviour is wrong – and one of my jobs as a psychologist has been to point out when the use of psychological explanations is misplaced. It has also been clear why behaviour has been psychologised: to shift the blame for the pandemic from government failures to provide support on to the mental frailty of the public. In other words, the so-called fundamental attribution error itself is as much a function of ideology as of psychology.

The events of last year have also made us rethink our understanding of the human subject. The idea that people violate Covid rules because they lack the psychological “grit” to comply reflects a broader understanding of the human psyche as inherently fragile and error-prone. According to this approach we don’t deal well with complexity or ambiguity or probability at the best of times. And when we are under pressure, all this is exacerbated: we panic, we overreact and we turn a crisis into a tragedy.

Such a scenario will always be congenial to the government for, if the public psyche is so deficient, the government becomes indispensable as a guide to save us from ourselves. This explains the popularity of the so-called “nudge” approach in official circles: it starts from the premise that citizens don’t know their own minds, they can’t be reasoned with and hence have to be fooled by clever manipulation of the alternatives they are offered.

Despite the appeal to government of such paternalist views, they come at a considerable cost. They make a genuine two-way conversation between government and public impossible and hence alienate the one from the other. Worse, in viewing the public as a problem, they lead government to disregard the best partner they have in dealing with the crisis. They also happen to be quite wrong.

For all the talk of “behavioural fatigue” (and the delay of lockdown due, at least in part, to the fear that people would cope with it for a very limited time), when restrictions were imposed it turned out that people did by and large adhere to them despite very considerable suffering. It wasn’t what was in people, but what happened between people, that underpinned this remarkable resilience. People came together with a shared sense of community; the knowledge that others were there to provide support empowered communities to cope. Neighbours checked up on each other, mutual aid groups sprang up and communities provided resources that the state could not.

In short, what we have seen is a psychology of collective resilience supplanting a psychology of individual frailty. Such a shift has profound implications for the relationship between the citizen and the state. For the role of the state becomes less a matter of substituting for the deficiencies of the individual and more to do with scaffolding and supporting communal self-organisation. We have seen only a glimpse of the possibilities and clearly there will be strong political opposition to such a prospect. But at least it can no longer be argued that our very psychological nature militates against it.

  • Stephen Reicher is a member of the behavioural science advisory group to Sage, and a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews