10 lessons for dealing with a pandemic

...from Jolanda Jetten, Stephen Reicher, Alex Haslam and Tegan Cruwys.

07 July 2020

Andrew Cuomo wasn’t writing the blurb to our book, Together Apart: The Psychology of Covid-19. But if he had been, he couldn’t have summarised the text any better. For what we seek to do is help people get their heads around the ‘we-concept’ – what it is, why it is important, the nature of its antecedents and its consequences. Group psychology has been, and will continue to be, of central importance in dealing with the pandemic.

Since we have been involved in the response to Covid-19 in a multitude of ways, we wanted to bring together a text which could not only assist the general reader in understanding the relevance of psychology to the pandemic, but which would also help policy makers and practitioners in dealing with it. We drew on the expertise of a host of authors from across the globe.

That expertise is grounded in published, quality psychological research. To whet your appetite, then, here are our top 10 psychological lessons for how to understand and deal with Covid-19, each with an illustrative reference.

In a pandemic, people don’t panic
The traditional view is the people are psychologically vulnerable, and in a crisis, they crack. In their desperate and blind attempts at individual self-preservation, people turn a crisis into a tragedy. But the study of emergencies and disasters reveals that this is not what generally happens. People more usually respond in a calm orderly manner, they look after each other and they try to find safety together (Quarantelli, 2001; thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/truth-about-panic).

Common experience leads to the formation of shared identity
In a crisis, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, people are faced with the same threat and share the same experience. This gives rise to a sense of common fate which in turn is an important precursor of shared identity – the shift from thinking of ourselves in terms of ‘I’ to ‘we’. When that happens, other individuals become part of my collective self, their perspectives and their concerns become mine. Shared identity thereby becomes the basis for coordination and mutual support (Drury & Alfadhli, 2019).

Shared identity is fragile and needs to be nurtured by good leadership
The shared identity between members of the public is fragile and can easily be disrupted by leadership that sets people against each other in rhetoric or which favours some groups over others in practice. It is therefore critical to have good leaders who appeal to an inclusive sense of community and who provide the practical support needed to maintain a commonality of experience (Ntontis et al., 2020).

Shared identity is as important between Government and public as between different sections of the public
Shared identity is important, not only amongst different sections of the public, but also between the public and the Government. This is essential to trust in the Government, to the influence of Government and hence to their ability to steer us through a crisis. Such shared identity is enhanced when Government treats us as equals: involving us in developing policy, listening to us, being open with us, treating us with respect. It is critically undermined by anything which smacks of ‘one rule for us and another for them’ (Tyler & Blader, 2003).

Shared identity is at the root of adherence to pandemic restrictions
The levels of adherence to lockdown in the UK were exceptional despite the fact that many were suffering. Had they been acting out of individual interest many would have disobeyed since they had little to lose personally by going out. But they didn’t – they were acting in terms of the collective interest and to ensure they didn’t infect others and endanger the most vulnerable in the community (Duffy & Allington, 2020).

Shared identity is at the root of mutual support amongst the public
Another feature of the pandemic, across the world, has been the remarkable growth of community self-help, from neighbours checking on each other, to street level WhatsAapp groups to the formation of over 4,000 mutual aid groups involving over three million people in the UK alone. Such groups are an organisational expression of the shared identity that emerges in a crisis (Maki et al., 2019; see also Walker, this issue).

Shared identity preserves mental and physical health during a pandemic
When we feel part of a group and can draw on the support of other group members, it increases the sense of coping and lowers stress. Relatedly, membership of social groups is a powerful prophylactic against a wide range of mental and physical disorders. That is why, even as we have to physically distance from others, we must devise new ways to retain social connectedness. A key challenge of the pandemic is to stay together apart (Haslam et al., 2018).

Without good leadership, a pandemic can undermine shared identity and exacerbate social divisions
While disasters have the potential to bring people together and to unlock all the benefits of shared social identity, they also serve as a spotlight that illuminates and potentially exacerbates social divisions. The poor, the vulnerable, and those who are discriminated against all suffer more both during and after pandemics. Unless explicitly recognised and addressed, this will undermine shared identity and increase social tensions (Jetten & Peters, 2019).

Division plus repression can turn social cohesion into social disorder
If the less privileged groups in society are less able to abide by the restrictions of Covid-19, and if, on top of that, they experience repressive sanctions when they violate these restrictions, then the potential for social disorder is greatly increased. Effective policing of a pandemic should only use enforcement as a last resort. Instead it needs to engage in a dialogue with communities, understanding their situation, explaining and encouraging adherence (Reicher & Stott, 2020).

Trust the people!
All the foregoing nine lessons combine to support one overall conclusion. In a crisis the people are not the problem. To the extent that they come together under a shared identity, people develop a collective resilience which is the most precious of resources for confronting a challenge. Accordingly, the relationship between the Government and the public in a crisis (and beyond) needs to shift from paternalism to partnership. Rather than seeking to shepherd us, Government and its agencies should seek to scaffold the collective self-organisation of the public. Don’t treat us as children, unable to look after ourselves. Trust the public and harness the power of the group.

Together Apart is available as a free download from www.socialsciencespace.com/wp-content/uploads/Together-Apart-Complete-ms.pdf and also as a paperback book from Sage publishers

- Professor Jolanda Jetten is at the University of Queensland
[email protected]

- Professor Stephen Reicher is at the University of St Andrews
[email protected]

- Professor Alex Haslam  is at the University of Queensland
[email protected]

Dr Tegan Cruwys  is at Australia National University
[email protected]

Artwork: Eliza Southwood

Key sources
Bonell, C., Michie, S., Reicher, S. et al. (2020). Harnessing behavioural science in public health campaigns to maintain ‘social distancing’ in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: key principles. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
Duffy, B. & Allington, D. (2020). The accepting, the suffering and the resisting: the different reactions to life under lockdown. The Policy Institute, Kings College London. tinyurl.com/ybdpjoem
Drury, J. & Alfadhli, K. (2019). Social identity, emergencies and disasters. In R. Williams, S. Bailey, B. Kamaldeep et al. (Eds). Social scaffolding. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T. et al. (2018). The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the social cure. London: Routledge.
Haslam, S.A., Reicher, S.D. & Platow, M.J. (2020). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence, and power (2nd Edition). Psychology Press.
Jackson, J. et al. (2020) The lockdown and social norms: why the UK is complying by consent rather than compulsion. LSE blogs. 
Jetten, J. & Peters, K. (Eds.). (2019). The Social Psychology of Inequality. Springer.
Maki, A., Dwyer, P. C., Blazek, S. et al. (2019). Responding to natural disasters: Examining identity and prosociality in the context of a major earthquake. British Journal of Social Psychology, 58, 66-87.
Ntontis, E., Drury, J., Amlôt, R., Rubin, G.J. & Williams, R. (2020). Endurance or decline of emergent groups following a flood disaster. Int Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction.
Quarantelli, E.L. (2001). Panic, sociology of. In N.J. Smelser & P.B. Baltes (Eds.) International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioural Sciences (pp. 11020–11023). New York: Pergamon Press.
Reicher, S.D. & Stott, C. (2020). Policing the coronavirus outbreak: Processes and prospects for collective disorder. Policing. Advance online publication.
Tyler, T.R. & Blader, S.L. (2003). The group engagement model. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 7, 349-361.