Hidden behind all the headlines about ‘panic buying’, ‘lockdown violations’ and ‘covidiots’, the real story of the pandemic is the remarkable level of adherence and of solidarity shown by the public.
Far from falling apart and panicking, people came together as a community and supported each other through the crisis. When the going got tough, the tough stayed home, although for many this wasn’t easy. According to one study, 44% of the UK population suffered during the lockdown. Despite this, they didn’t succumb to their individual desires to go out. The reason why was because they weren’t thinking simply of their individual interests. They were acting as and for the community as a whole.
The high levels of community spirit certainly took government by surprise. Such solidarity is strongly at odds with traditional assumptions of public vulnerability in crises (‘the panic perspective’) that it leads to claims of exceptionalism. In the UK we like to think of this as distinctively British – the ‘Blitz spirit’. After 9/11, New Yorkers spoke likewise of the ‘New York spirit’. But to students of human behaviour in emergencies, such solidarity is less exceptional or surprising. Indeed, it is characteristic of most such events. The fact that we all face the same extreme circumstances (common fate) leads to an emergent sense of shared identity, or ‘we-feeling’. This is the psychological underpinning of cooperation, coordination and concern for others.
Such we-feeling is the greatest asset we have to surmount a crisis like Covid-19. But it is fragile. It needs to be nurtured and supported, especially by government, but it can equally be undermined by bad government.
What I have been doing during the pandemic, as a member of the SPI-B Behavioural Science advisory group to the UK Government and also the advisory group to the Scottish Government, is to try and apply my understanding of the dynamics of shared identity and group formation to the practical issues needed to contain the infection. At the same time, with colleagues in Australia, we have written a book, Together Apart – The Psychology of Covid-19, which explains these dynamics and shows how they apply to a range of issues from leadership and social influence, to preserving mental and physical well-being in a time of pandemic, to issues of social order and disorder. It is available as a free download.
The book is written for a wide audience and, above all, it is written to be useful, so that having read it, you too will know how to create the communities to sustain us through crisis.