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Spotlight on.......Psychology

The Benefits of Forced Experimentation -

Psychology behind the Pandemic
A young girl sits inside a painted social-distancing circle in a New York City park in May. (Stephanie Keith / Getty)

The global coronavirus pandemic has forced us to change our behaviour drastically in a short space of time. We are developing new templates for how we think and process information. We are making changes to our daily lives; remembering to wear a mask, standing apart, the ‘rule of 6’. Our templates of thinking, or schemas, are difficult to change. Our brain likes what it knows. No wonder we are finding it all so difficult.

How the pandemic is influencing us socially is interesting to say the least. So, what psychological impact is the pandemic having on us?

Shared opinions from the pandemic have become a new basis of social identity.

Just like occupation, marital status or even the football team we support help to form parts of our identity, we now have a new COVID-19 facet (Maher et al, 2020).  We are using our opinions on the pandemic to label ourselves and find social groups to belong to. A person’s belief in conspiracies (the so called ‘second pandemic’ running alongside coronavirus) is such an example and is impactful. There are the people who think the pandemic itself is a hoax, or that it was being spread by the new 5G networks, leading vigilante gangs to attack mobile masts. Then there are believers in the claims of miracle cures – such as the idea that drinking methanol could kill the virus, a belief that actually caused hundreds of deaths (Robinson, D, 2020). Psychologists are now suggesting that a person’s belief in a COVID conspiracy will affect the social group that they are accepted into and who they seek out. There has also been an increase in anger felt from people who believe in conspiracy theories during the pandemic, and this has in turn been increasing paranoia (Jolley and Paterson, 2020). Making this particular facet damaging to a person’s mental health as well as their social circle. We are all sizing up new acquaintances more now, perhaps no longer choosing to spend time with people who are preoccupied with eating out and socialising.

Are our brains keeping us safe?

The evidence that someone may use to support their conspiracy may be intriguing, but ultimately it makes us question our trust in them. As it seems that we are becoming more wary of other people now, a person who doubts may now seem particularly untrustworthy. Our membership to a social group with shared identities makes us feel less vulnerable to disease transmission from each other during interactions (Cruwys, Stevens and Greenaway, 2020). Which could explain why we are so adept in finding these connections by using similarities in our identities aforementioned. Conflictingly, it is the people we trust the most who can cause us the most risk. The enhanced trust between group members increases the chances of sharing objects and therefore increase the risk of transmission (Ntontis, 2020). Which leads us back to our question, are our brains really keeping us safe?

Forced experimentation of our lives

Let us end on a positive note and look at the long term gains of the pandemic. People are being forced into experimenting with their lives, a paper, titled “The Benefits of Forced Experimentation,” by Larcom et al.(2017) studied the commuting paths of Londoners before and after a public-transit strike that shut down a number of Tube stations for two days. The service interruption led many people to come up with new routes to work—and some of them, an estimated 5 percent, found that their new route was better than their old one. This small but significant number of people stuck with this change even after the strike ended. Just think of how many changes we have all made. Just as landmarks in our life can cause behavioural adjustment, such as big birthdays or a new job, people may now see March 2020 as another temporal landmark (Milkman, 2020). People are making positive changes with their life, from drinking less alcohol and cutting down on smoking to increased access to quality education online and fostering important family relationships with more time spent at home. 

by Miss Hemming, Head of Psychology at Warwick School