Don't personalise, collectivise!

Stephen Reicher and John Drury argue for an identity-based approach to coronavirus.

15 March 2020

The way we deal with the coronavirus is bound up with the way we think about society and about the individual. And the problem is that we are in danger of getting it wrong on all counts, with the consequence that we will be less effective in containing the virus. There is nothing new about us being wrong. But this time, lives are at stake.

The commonsense assumption, which is reflected in the advice being handed out to the public, is that the way to change behaviour is to appeal to individual interests. To make sure people take notice, personalise the message: ‘change your behaviour so that you will survive’. Surely that makes sense? Well no. It is precisely the wrong thing to do. Here’s why. 

At a practical level, those least at risk (young, fit, healthy) may well feel it isn’t worthwhile to make the necessary changes and so continue to act in ways that put the most vulnerable (old and infirm) at risk of infection. Additionally, at a moral level, we have the right to disregard dangers to ourselves and some even glory in being risk takers. It might be foolish, but it isn’t disreputable to ignore safety advice.

On top of this, if we frame things individually – look after yourself! – we run into difficulties when it comes to getting people to behave in ways that are inconvenient to themselves but benefit others (self quarantining, for instance). The same goes when it comes to distributing scarce resources (doctors time, medicines, hand gel etc.). If we prioritise the individual then the strongest rather than the neediest will win out. In both cases, the pursuit of self-interest is inefficient, it undermines the overall response to the crisis and many more will die. 

Our own research on emergencies (Drury et al., 2019)  shows that it is precisely when people stop thinking in terms of ‘I’ and start thinking in terms of ‘we’ – more technically, when they develop a sense of shared social identity – that they start to coordinate, support each-other and ensure that the neediest get the greatest help. Sometimes this sense of shared identity emerges by the very fact of experiencing a common threat. But messaging also matters. When a threat is framed in group rather than individual terms, the public response is more robust and more effective (Carter et al., 2013).

So, let’s look again at the coronavirus response. Instead of personalising the issue we need to collectivise it. The key issue is not so much ‘will I survive’ as ‘how do we get through it’. The emphasis must lie on how we can act to ensure that the most vulnerable amongst us are protected and losses to the community are minimised – after all, from a collective perspective, a loss to one is a loss to all.

If framed in this way, then it becomes important for everyone to wash their hands and cover their coughs because of the implications for others as well as for themselves. Moreover, while we might have a right to take risks for ourselves, we have a moral obligation to avoid imposing risks on others (especially those who are vulnerable and connected to us – just think how your driving changes when you have children in the car). Both of these considerations are powerful motivators of action (Reicher & Haslam, 2009).

What is more, once certain actions become communal issues subject to collective norms, then violating them invokes collective pressure. The best way to stop people going out when unwell or demanding resources they need less than others is not simply to change internal motivations but also to mobilise external disapproval. The feverish person who goes to work, the fit young person demanding access to A&E will be best dissuaded when the community comes together to make clear that these are not acceptable behaviours.

Once you collectivise the response to coronavirus, and once you create clear norms about maximising community well-being, then you become less reliant upon external forces such as the police to regulate behaviours – say around who is prioritised in getting medical help – with all the risk of clashes that entails. Instead, the community itself will constrain would-be deviants in their midst. As always, the best regulation is collective self-regulation (Reicher et al., 2004). 

The difficulty with this approach, of course, is that it is so much at odds with contemporary psychological commonsense, which insists that behaviour is governed by individual self interest. It is also at odds with social changes which relentlessly undermine communities and collectivities, seek to transform social groups into individual consumers and view every relationship as a market based interpersonal exchange. In this sense, perhaps coronavirus is a powerful wake-up call. 

We have to change the way we frame the epidemic.

We have to change we see the individual and society.

We have to collectivise – or we die.

Stephen Reicher, University of St. Andrews

John Drury, University of Sussex


Carter, H.Drury, J.Rubin, G.Williams, R. and Amlôt, R. (2013), "The effect of communication during mass decontamination", Disaster Prevention and Management, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 132-147.

Drury, J., Carter, H., Cocking, C., Ntontis, E., Tekin Guven, S., & Amlôt, R. (2019). Facilitating collective psychosocial resilience in the public in emergencies: Twelve recommendations based on the social identity approachFrontiers in Public Health, 7 (141) doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141

Drury, J., & Alfadhli, K. (2019). Social identity, emergencies and disasters. In R. Williams, S. Bailey, B. Kamaldeep, S. A. Haslam, C. Haslam, V. Kemp, & D. Maughan (Eds). Social scaffolding: Applying the lessons of contemporary social science to health, public mental health and healthcare. London: Royal College of Psychiatrists.

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Reicher, S.Stott, C.Cronin, P. and Adang, O. (2004), "An integrated approach to crowd psychology and public order policing", Policing: An International Journal, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 558-572.

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