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World 2.0: After COVID-19 another world is necessary, and possible

By olga.perski, on 16 April 2020

Written by Dr David Crane

What is happening now is a mass, shared, life-changing psychological event. Potentially. The long-term effects of any event are of course impossible to predict for individuals. But on a global level, the substantial changes so-far wrought by this pandemic suggests COVID-19 could have a lasting effect on the behaviour of a large number of people.

In the space of three months, a threat has gone in public consciousness from theoretical to powerful enough to force billions of people to make fundamental changes to their daily lives. Behaviours unthinkable a short time ago, such as staying at home for weeks on end, are now so commonly accepted as to make being outside feel uncomfortable. Behaviours still largely unconscious, such as touching one’s face, somehow need to be changed because there is a non-trivial chance that something so simple and commonplace could now lead to our, or somebody else’s, demise.

Everything we are doing to develop a vaccine and change our behaviour will hopefully mean that when compared to previous pandemics the number of deaths will be low. And it is probably true that our ancestors had to live with more uncertainty on a regular basis than we are experiencing now. So why might this event be so significant psychologically? Because it could result in a paradigm shift in our awareness of the fragility of life and the benefits of collaboration. One experienced by a great many people over a large swathe of the world at more or less the same time.

The chance that we or our loved ones might die in the near future has, for most of us, gone from effectively zero to something noticeably greater in a short space of time. The risk remains mercifully small but cannot be dismissed entirely, even by the young, healthy, rich and/or powerful. Those who downplay the risk will still probably be more careful about keeping their distance and washing their hands, even when not demanded by new social norms. And if the only reason this is done is for fear of infecting others, that still represents a substantial change in threat perception since Christmas.

By the time this is pandemic is over, it is likely that almost all of us will know people who have died and others who have suffered, even if we escape suffering ourselves. Awareness of death’s proximity will be increased by the availability of its news. TV, newspapers and radio will tell us about people we have heard of who have died, or tragedies that people we can relate to have suffered. Social media will be full of heart-wrenching stories from people we know who have lost people they loved; the most moving of which will be shared more widely themselves, so enlarging the circle of grief far beyond usual bounds.

A subject many people prefer not to think about will be pushed into consciousness for a considerable period of time. Reactions will fall along a spectrum of course, from totally unaffected to completely petrified. Though many people unaffected by a change in their proximity to death are likely to be affected by one or other of the loss of their job (now or possibly soon), wider concerns about the economy, fears for what society is about to go through, worries for other people, or just that deeply unsettling feeling that many of the things that used to be relied upon are now less secure.

Something microscopic has seemingly come out of nowhere to upend our world with astonishing speed. Finding this a destabilising experience seems a perfectly appropriate response. This is a profound change.

But profound changes do not have wholly negative outcomes. Human beings have the inherent capacity – and tendency – to make life-altering events turn to our advantage. In normal times we carry on doing what we’ve always done until it’s abundantly obvious it no longer works. It can take years of disconfirming experiences before we accept that things which used to relieve pain or bring pleasure now have the opposite effect. And those are the big, noticeable, things. Much of our now ineffective behaviour is too small to be seen.

In exceptional times change is thrust upon us. Routines are forcibly broken, usual behaviour prevented. We can’t do what we’ve always done because it is impossible, impractical or obviously ineffective. Which makes it easier to see what’s as it should be and what needs adjustment. Behaviour that might otherwise be automatic and habitual (like drinking alcohol when stressed), is brought into awareness, from where decisions about whether to continue are more easily made. Opportunities to gain clarity on our priorities happen rarely in our lifetime, it is hard to think when previously they have happened to so many people at the same time.

A force multiplier of COVID-19 is that along with opportunity to change, it also provides a significant amount of motivation too. Because the virus only makes obvious that which has always, and will always, be true: life is fragile and the future is uncertain. It’s easy to procrastinate when we think we’ve got plenty of time. We tend to be more proactive when we realise that’s not so. This principle is something we understand intellectually and have probably experienced mildly. The difference now is how salient it could become.

In addition to opportunity and motivation, the third element for behaviour change to take place, capability, could also be increased by the pandemic. Or rather, by its survival. Simply getting through this will boost many people’s self-efficacy and sense of resilience and resourcefulness; with people who experienced more doubts likely to see greater increases than people who experienced few. Capability is also increased by motivation to change, which could increase substantially, and skills teaching, which is abundant.

Thoughts of everyone doing whatever they want may inspire fears of a hedonistic, anarchic, free-for-all. But if that were true, we would expect to see people being at least equally selfish when they felt most threatened. If our evolutionary tendency was towards self-interest, surely that would be more obvious when our survival was at risk.

But selfish behaviour does not appear to be prevalent. The opposite, in fact. Millions of people are risking their lives so we can live ours. Hundreds of thousands of support groups have spontaneously formed so people can look after each other. Acts of generosity and thoughtfulness abound, amongst friends and strangers alike. This represents, I suggest, large-scale evidence of enlightened self-interest: the understanding that our interests are best served by helping others. Because there is nothing like feeling vulnerable to make us realise how much we need other people. And perhaps nothing has made more people feel more vulnerable than this.

By talking about positive outcomes I do not mean to belittle the great suffering that will occur. Many people will be left in dire circumstances as a result of this crisis, some may never fully recover from losing people they love, others might find the threat too overwhelming to deal with, let alone make the most of. We cannot forget that a great many people will need help through and after this.

We also should not expect positive change to be guaranteed. Bad actors will seek to use this for their benefit. Our motivation to change will fluctuate and we should anticipate resistance internally and from others. Changing behaviour takes time and requires persistence. It does not come easy on an individual level, let alone a societal one.

Reasons for optimism come from three places. First, we are not talking about people having an intellectual appreciation of why change is important, these are visceral experiences, which are usually more salient. Second, even if only a tiny percentage are driven to change, that still represents a very large number in absolute terms. Third, the visceral experience large numbers of people are having is unlikely to be for more separateness. We might hope.

The world before COVID-19 seemed headed towards greater inequality and protectionism. What we are presented with now is a lesson in cooperation. To get through this crisis we need strangers to risk their safety to take care of our health, keep us supplied and perform the other services we now know are essential. Almost everyone has agreed to make sacrifices to prevent the transmission of disease, even those who feel the risk to themselves be small. Perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to help others allows a great many more of us to experience the primal boost to self-worth that comes from feeling of value.

We sometimes forget that we are a group species whose success lies more in our ability to cooperate than compete. Competition doesn’t work in a crisis, challenges like these can only be overcome by working together. The experience of this even being possible, how good it feels and how effective it can be, is perhaps what is needed for us to address the even bigger challenges the world will soon face.

Dr David Crane is founder of the popular smoking cessation app, Smoke Free. His interest in behaviour change started in primary school and hasn’t really stopped since.

One Response to “World 2.0: After COVID-19 another world is necessary, and possible”

  • 1
    Louise Ross wrote on 16 April 2020:

    It’s uplifting to read this optimistic analysis of how the pandemic has shaped human reactions, and what we can learn from it. Thanks David

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