me I have worked as a psychologist for over 40 years, but Covid-19 has projected the analysis of human behavior in public discourse in a way that I have never witnessed before. The spread of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 disease, depends on physical proximity between people. Consequently, fighting the infection means changing fundamental aspects of our daily routine. We have all been challenged To reduce the social contacts and intimacies that we hold dear as social animals.
Covid has done a lot To promote the study of behavior by bringing it inTo people’s homes and everyday conversations. In countless radio phone calls and television news shows, magazine articles, and newspaper reports, discussions of the basis for adherence and resistance To Covid regulations have become commonplace. Most obviously, there has been intense scrutiny about the extent of our psychological resilience, whether we are able To adapt our behavior To difficult times, give up the things we value, and if so, for how long.
But if the debate has focused, in part, on the general nature of human psychology, it has also focused on the social structural determinants of behavior: questions such as our general relationship To authority, the role of enforcement, and punishment. To ensure compliance, the importance of trust and security, how that trust is achieved and, perhaps more pertinently, how it is undermined (for example, trips To Barnard Castle To test your eyesight). The tuTorial room material has become the talk of the Town. In just a few months, Covid has more effectively demonstrated the importance of social science To a skeptical public and a disdainful government than years of campaigning.
Another characteristic of the pandemic has been To remind us that the study of behavior and the study of psychology are not the same thing at all and To show us the dangers of combining 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 example, if people do not follow Covid restrictions, it is assumed that they are not motivated To do so. It follows that they are guilty of their actions and deserve punishment for their violations (a line of argument often followed by the government).
The problem with this is that it ignores the fact that behavior is limited by both social and material facTors and by psychological will. There have been claims that in recent massive tests in Liverpool, Only 4% of those from the most disadvantaged districts came forward. This is linked To the fact that 80% claims for the payment of self-isolation they were rejected. The poorest people literally couldn’t afford To find out they were infected. The obvious answer is not To blame them or threaten them with sanctions, but To provide the necessary support for people To do what is asked of them.
Throughout the pandemic, it has become very clear that the psychologizing of behavior is wrong, and one of my jobs as a psychologist has been To point out when the use of psychological explanations is out of place. It has also become clear why the behavior has been psychologized: shifting the blame for the pandemic To the government’s failure To support the mentally fragile of the public. In other words, the so-called fundamental attribution error itself is as much a function of ideology as it is of psychology.
The events of the past year have also caused us To rethink our understanding of the human subject. The idea that people violate Covid rules because they lack the psychological “courage” To comply reflects a broader understanding of the human psyche as inherently fragile and prone To error. According To this approach, we do not deal well with complexity, ambiguity, or probability at best. And when we are under pressure, all of this gets worse: we panic, we exaggerate, and we turn a crisis inTo a tragedy.
Such a scenario will always be pleasant for the government because, 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 “push” rapprochement in official circles: part of the premise that citizens do not know their own minds, cannot reason with them and, therefore, must be deceived by means of an intelligent manipulation of the alternatives that are offered To them.
Despite the appeal To the government of such paternalistic views, they come at a considerable cost. They make a true two-way conversation between the government and the public impossible and therefore alienate one from the other. Worse still, by seeing the public as a problem, they lead the government To ignore the best partner they have To deal with the crisis. They also turn out To be quite wrong.
Despite all the talk about “behavioral fatigue” (and the delay in confinement 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 big adhere To them despite considerable suffering. It was not what was in people, but what happened between people, that sustained this remarkable resilience. People came Together with a shared sense of community; the knowledge that others were there To provide support communities empowered To cope. Neighbors controlled each other, mutual aid groups emerged, 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 change has profound implications for the relationship between the citizen and the state. Because the role of the state becomes less a matter of replacing the deficiencies of the individual and more a matter of scaffolding and supporting community self-organization. We have only seen a glimpse of the possibilities and it is clear that there will be strong political opposition To such a prospect. But at least it can no longer be argued that our own psychological nature militates against it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism