Episode 3: Professor Stephen Reicher on Public Social Psychology during COVID-19
Please note transcriptions are auto-generated so may feature mistakes.
Rebekah: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the RSE’s Tea & Talk podcast series. A programme inspired by the coffee houses of the 18th century, where great thinkers would come together to discuss ideas and matters of the day. I’m Rebekah Widdowfield and I’m Chief Executive of the RSE, which is the Royal Society of Edinburgh and is Scotland’s National Academy.
Our mission is to advance learning and make knowledge useful, and as part of that, I’m having a series of conversations with some of Scotland’s leading authorities on a whole range of topics, starting with exploring different perspectives on the coronavirus pandemic. The conversations are all with fellows of the RSE who are keen to share their expertise and experience.
This week I’m speaking with professor Steve Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St. Andrews and a member of Scottish government’s COVID-19 advisory group, and also an advisor to the UK government.
So we’re not in a coffee house. We’re both in our own homes, which explains the occasional dip in sound quality. But I’d encourage you to grab yourself a drink of something, sit back and listen to one of Scotland’s leading experts talk about things that matter.
So Steve, tackling the COVID pandemic is obviously very heavily reliant on behaviours, whether that’s about hand washing or social distancing or staying at home, particularly in the absence of vaccines and effective treatments. Have you been surprised at the level of adherence to the guidelines?
Steve: [00:01:32] So, first of all, let me say that behaviour is going to be central at every level, including if we get a vaccine, including if we get palliative drugs, because people have still got to be willing to take those vaccines.
And as we see there are anti-vaccine movements and so on. So human behaviour is right at the core of this. Early on, as we were going into lockdown, I asked one of the modelers to produce for me just what the curves were at different levels of adherence. And they showed that if you went from about a 20 to 80% level of adherence, the difference in terms of the level of infections was virtually tenfold.
Or again, I was looking at the modeling for Test, Track and Isolate. And if you have 20% adherence, then we’re going to have a second wave; that the infection’s going to spike again, that’s going to go up massively. If you have 80% adherence, then it’s not only that the curve goes down, it’s crunched. Completely.
So the variability in adherence in behaviour and what people actually do makes all the difference between us dealing with this pandemic and this pandemic running out of control. The behavioural dimension is absolutely central at every single level. And I think it’s really important to understand that it’s not more important than the medicine, but they are equally important and they’re completely interdependent in many ways.
Now, when it comes to how people have behaved. I think many people were surprised. The traditional view of how people behave in a crisis is that we crack; that people are relatively psychologically fragile. You put pressure on them, you put them in a crisis. They panic, they overreact. And their behaviour in many ways, turns a crisis into a tragedy.
And that’s a very widespread view and you’re never going to see a Hollywood disaster movie without people running, screaming, waving their arms in the air. And blocking the exits and so dying. But the interesting thing is it doesn’t happen very often. But equally when you find that people actually do behave in very different ways. So that people behave in an orderly way, that people don’t become mindless, that people support each other and they coordinate.
People always think, well, that’s an exception. It’s something about us. So in the UK, we think well that’s the British spirit, or it’s the it’s the blitz spirit or whatever. In New York, they will say, ah well that’s the New York spirit look at 9/11. Actually, if you study disasters and you study behaviour and emergencies, you find that it’s the rule rather than exception that people come together. And the reason why they come together is because we are experiencing the same things, because we have common fate that sense of common fate leads to a sense of shared identity.
We start to think of ourselves, not in terms of I, but in terms of we. And that shared identity or that we thinking is at the root of all the prosocial behaviours we see; if we extend our self – sense of self, if I extend my sense of self so it includes you then what happens to you, happens to myself. That your concerns and your fears and your pains, are my pains, that your understandings are my understandings. And that allows me, number one, to have empathy with you; number two, to coordinate and to cooperate with you; and number three to support you.
So that sense of shared identity is incredibly powerful, is at the root of the good things we’ve seen in this pandemic and something that is really important to nurture.
It doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s a fragile thing. It’s something that can be undermined by government or supported by governments and therefore understanding it, I think is very much the key to the behavioural response to the pandemic.
Rebekah: [00:05:16] So that’s really interesting. The notion of all being in it together. And then yeah, what that means in terms of identity. But I guess one of things we’ve increasingly seen is we might be all in it together, but there are some people in groups that are being much more impacted than others, and indeed others who are much less at risk. And I’m thinking particularly of some of the younger population.
So how do you support positive behaviours in that context and how do you sustain them over time? Where, you know, if I was a young man in my twenties I might be thinking quite differently about my behaviours than I am as a woman approaching 50.
Steve: [00:05:48] Yeah. Well there are two very important issues there. And slightly different issues there, and in many ways, what you’re describing is precisely why shared identity and we thinking is so important. Because if you think about this pandemic in personal terms and individual terms, then you might think, well, actually, I’ve got little to risk. I’m not going to get ill. I’m going to be okay. And what’s more, the restrictions are a particular burden. I mean, I have a 16 year old son, for him the risk of going out is very low. The cost of staying in is very high because his social life is far more interesting than mine.
So, you know, his mates, spending time with his mates is incredibly important. So if he was thinking at an individual level, then he would go out. Okay. And if people, we individualise this and make it a matter of individual self-interest or the interest of the individual self, then we would not have got compliance.
But actually what some of the evidence seems to suggest is people weren’t thinking that way, they were thinking in terms of the impact on the community. They weren’t going out because they knew that it might be fine for them, but they might kill somebody else’s granny or they might kill their own granny.
So it was very much that we thinking that is critical because if you think in terms of individual interests, you won’t get compliance. Work done by Bobby Duffy’s group at Kings College London was really interesting because it showed that about 90% of the population was largely complying; of those nearly half – 44% were suffering. 44% of people were having a really hard time either psychologically or materially. And yet, despite that they did not give way to that individual urges; what Boris Johnson has called individual instincts. No, they acted for the common good in those situations, and in many ways I think that behaviour is quite heroic.
So the point is that in order to get those young people and in order to get most people to comply that collectivisation becomes all the more important. Now, the second part of your question, and this is quite right, is it’s very easy to say we’re all in this together, but as many people have pointed out, what a pandemic does, is it shines a spotlight on social inequalities and social divisions.
And that’s why it’s so important not only just to have a rhetoric of we’re all in this together, not only to talk about it, although that is important, is to make it practically possible. Now, I think we did just about enough in this country in material terms to bring people together; just about enough was done in economic terms to make it financially viable to stay at home, but there were still inequalities. So again, research early on showed that if you were poor, you were six times more likely to go out than if you were rich, and if you were a black and minority ethnic three times more likely than if you were not. Not because of motivation. The motivation to stay in was exactly the same. It was just the practicalities of being able to stay in and also put food on the table.
So those incipient divisions are there and those incipient divisions are incredibly dangerous if they’re opened up. And that’s why it’s all the more important if you want to create a sense of shared identity, you don’t only scaffold it rhetorically and in the way in which you talk to people, in the way in which you frame the event, but also you scaffold it practically with the practical measures, which bring people together.
And it’s also now why it’s so important to understand what the impediments are for particular groups. Why is it that particular groups have not been able to comply? Why is it that certain groups are getting more infected and dying more? We need action plans and not just warm words to deal with those things, because otherwise we will fracture that sense of us. It will turn into a sense of them and us. And if a sense of unified identity is good and positive and brings solidarity, a divided sense of us and them can lead to conflict, can lead to riots on the streets.
Rebekah: [00:09:52] That’s really interesting. And obviously there’s already a differentiation, for example, people who are shielding and certain behaviours that might be being expected of them, particularly over the long term versus other people.
Along that notion of shared identity so just as it can be a positive thing and support a positive response to the pandemic in terms of the adherence, does that mean though as once it sort of starts breaking down, if I can put it in those terms, that you almost get a negative circle, the other way that actually then something very quickly can go from very high levels of adherence to a much lower level.
Steve: [00:10:23] Yeah. I mean, other than them there are two ways we can look at that. First of all, is the relationship between the public and the authority. And secondly, there are potential divisions amongst the public. So let, let me take those two in turn. When you look at research on … there are two broad view points: one is what’s called instrumental compliance. In other words, we comply with the law because if we didn’t, we’re going to get punished. You know, we’re going to be hit with a big stick. And the second is normative compliance. We, we complied because we think it’s the right thing to do.
And I mean, instrumental compliance, it can work in the short term. But in the long term, it tends to be counter productive. So for instance, I put a gun to your head and say, walk left. You will walk to the left. If I take that gun away and when I’m not there, you will either not continue walking to the left or walk to the right on principle to show that you can.
So instrumental compliance leads to a spiral of increasing repression, which ultimately in the end breaks down. Normative compliance is very much dependent upon the notion that the authorities are of us and for us. That they are of the community and the way in which you get that sense is often achieved through procedural justice: through the way you treat people.
If you treat people as us, they will begin to see you as us. If you treat them with respect, if you give them voice, if you have dialogue and so on people are far more likely to feel that authorities are part of the community. However, If you do things which treat people with disrespect, if you treat people without transparency and openness, if you create divisions such that what authorities do and what authoritarians think is acceptable for them to do is different to what they tell the population to do. Once you get that sense of us and them, you critically undermine trust and we saw that very clearly with the Cummings affair. I mean, we could all argue until the cows come home about the rights and wrongs of what he did, and we’ll probably not convince each other at all, but what is without doubt and what all the evidence shows very clearly is there has begun to be a very clear sense of us and them, and that has critically undermined trust.
We have seen collapses in levels of trust, which are remarkable and virtually unprecedented, and that undermines influence. And that’s not a good thing in the midst of a pandemic. You need clear government, you need government that people trust and you need a government that can bring people together.
Rebekah: [00:12:48] And is there a way of recovering that once the trust is lost? I mean, it must be very difficult to regain, but is there anything that can be done that sort of builds up that trust again?
Steve: [00:12:57] I think, I mean, it’s not easy as in many things, things that take a long time to build up can be destroyed in an instant.
And I don’t think we’re in a good place right now, but I do think there are ways in which it can be rebuilt. Above all, I think it is a matter of treating the public with openness, with trust and with respect, I think owning mistakes and going beyond one’s mistakes is the starting point. Because if you don’t even acknowledge you’ve done anything wrong, if you don’t even acknowledge there’s a problem, it’s very, very hard to rebuild that trust. And I think that the other problem of the Cummings affair is not just what was done, but there’s, you know, the attitudes that went along with it. And which is actually going on throughout the discussions at the moment.
So for instance, I think it is undeniable that we all made mistakes. Every government made mistakes, the scientists make mistakes as well. I mean, there’s a new, it was a new virus. We didn’t know what’s going to happen. it took time to get our heads around things. We’ve all made mistakes. Now we’re speaking the day after the figures came out, showing there were more deaths in the UK alone than in the rest of the EC.
Now on that day to say, We got it right. We’re proud of what we did. We did nothing wrong. It’s not a good way of regaining a sense of trust, regaining a sense of confidence. So I think, I think it’s really important that there is some knowledgement of the errors and acknowledgement of what’s gone wrong in order to learn from those mistakes and move forward.
And I don’t think we’ll begin to rebuild trust until there is an acknowledgement of fallibility.
Rebekah: [00:14:36] I mean, obviously a lot of emphasis is being placed on communication in terms of trying to get people to adhere to certain behaviours and very simple messages. So stay home and protect the NHS, save lives.
I mean, accepting all that you say around, around trust and the importance of that. But how important is government communication in influencing behaviours? I mean, it does seem that governments, for the most part have been going down more that normative route rather than reaching for legislative tools, but can governments rely on communication alone or is there other things they should be thinking about?
Steve: [00:15:06] Well, communication is absolutely central, of course. And I think the communication has got to take a number of forms. So the first thing, and it’s one of the things that worries me is it’s fine and it’s really important to have a slogan that encapsulates what needs to be done and which is very specific and very behavioural.
So stay at home is a very specific message, you know what it means. Stay alert; nobody, well, not nobody – the polling suggested that 63% of people said what does that mean? What do I actually do? So at the micro level, those slogans need to be very clear, but I also think needs to be a broader framework of understanding within which those slogans are nested.
I think one of the problems we have at the moment is there is no clear strategic overview. The notion has been given that basically we have locked down and now what’s happening is we’re all relaxing. That the infection’s going away so we can reduce our levels of vigilance. And I think that’s really dangerous as an overall framework and the overall message, because what’s quite clear is that the infection has not gone away. It’s still there out in the community at higher levels than it was early on in the pandemic, and if we don’t control it, it can spike again. We can have the second waves and we have the third wave and remember that in the Spanish flu pandemic of a century ago, it was the second and third waves that did most of the damage, not the first wave.
And the point is that with the development of test and trace, we are in a position to go from a blunt instrument of lockdown where, because we didn’t have test and trace, so we couldn’t say where the infection was. We had to get everybody to lock down. Now we can go to a more targeted strategy, a strategy of test, trace, isolate along with a number of other things, but that new strategy, that targeted strategy is dependent in many ways on greater compliance, not relaxation. So we’ve got to be more vigilant in terms of distance, more vigilant in terms of hygiene, more willing to adhere to test, trace and isolate itself. And so an overall understanding of the position that we are in a framework within which we can look at the micro actions, I think is really important.
We’re lacking that level of communication, which is absolutely central.
Rebekah: [00:17:28] Just, just on that though. Presumably though, that the messaging gets – the more targeted you get, the more nuance comes into who can do what and who’s required to do what – presumably the more complicated the messaging gets. So how can government sort of respond to a changing situation where it moves away from us all having to do the same thing at the same time?
You know, if we happen to have met someone who’s got COVID, we’re having to sort of self isolate. So how do you get messages that are clear but also incorporate or take account of some of that nuance and differentiation in the behaviours that are being expected of different people?
Steve: [00:18:01] Well it’s precisely because of that, I think the general understanding and the general understanding of strategy is really important so that people do understand that within that overall strategy, then, you know, different types of things follow; that what everybody must do is to keep our distance and to increase levels of hygiene. That if anybody feels sick, they’ve got to be prepared to be tested early. They’ve got to be prepared to give their contacts. And if you’re contacted, you’ve got to be willing to isolate.
Now, those are actually quite difficult behaviours in a number of ways, because in many ways they go against predominant social norms. So in this country, at least there is a norm that you show heroism by going to work when you’re feeling bad. You know, if you go to work and say, Oh, I feel awful. I’ve got a cold coming on; your expectation is people will say, wow, well, you’re really committed to the institution.
And other countries, people will think you’re a bloody idiot because you’re infecting everybody else. We need to reconfigure social norms. What heroism and what commitment means. Equally, and especially for certain groups to give the names of your contacts to authority is profoundly counter normative – you don’t dob in your mates to the authorities. And so again, we’ve got to ask what does supporting your mates mean?
And thirdly, locking down, quarantining if you’re contacted is particularly difficult for three reasons; the first reason is most people will be feeling well, they’ll be feeling asymptomatic and they’re thinking, well, why the hell should I do anything?
The second reason is unlike lockdown where everybody is inside. You see all of your friends and others going out having a good time. You’re forced to stay at home. And thirdly, the point is, you’re not doing it for yourself. Because it makes little difference to you; if you’re infected you’re infected. If you go out, it’s not going to affect your infection, it is going to affect others.
So again, you are doing it for the community. You’re not doing it for yourself. So the importance of the collective framing becomes more important than ever before. So the issue of looking at group identities, drawing on group norms and reconfiguring group norms and above all, getting people to think about things in collective terms becomes more important than it ever was before.
Rebekah: [00:20:17] So do you feel in that context, that communication is, is often transmission and there’s a lot of just talking at people. I mean, does that suggest, we maybe need to think about how we have a dialogue or government needs to think about how it has a dialogue with the public about this so that there is that understanding of the complexities and the nuance. And there is that understanding of why people are being asked to behave in a certain way, rather than just being told to do it, because I say so type thing.
Steve: [00:20:41] You got there before me. One of the key principles in the messaging is what people call co-creation. Okay. So you involve people in developing the policy. And again, the psychology of it comes back to this issue of a sense of shared identity with authority. Because if a policy, however good, is dumped on you, you know, we’re told this is what you’re going to do. It’s still their policy, which we have to take part in. As opposed to co-creation where through dialogue you’re involved in developing that policy. You own that policy. It’s our policy.
At which point you’re far more likely to go along with it because it’s not an imposition. You see this time and again, in all sorts of everyday behaviour; that other people tell you to do things – any parent knows this. You tell your child to go to bed. Right. And they’re tired and they desperately want to go to bed, but they won’t go to bed because somebody else is telling them to do it and they want to assert their freedom.
So you hit this process of reactance and you’re going to always get this process of reactance when others tell you to do something, irrespective of the content and what you feel about that particular act. So the process of co-creation, of trusting the community trusting people, engaging with them is really important.
Now I think actually we’re not doing too badly in Scotland. Scotland has tried to use those types of processes. It’s opened up new platforms where people can give their ideas. It’s using a local fora in order to develop those types of things. Not perfect, but it’s trying to do them. And I acknowledge another issue; and one of the things that is increasingly clear to me working with government. And I should say, I’m not normally a policy oriented academic. I’m an old fashioned academic. I like doing the theoretical work to try and understand things. So it’s quite rare for me to be involved. And so one of the biggest things I begin to realise is, is the issue of time.
Normally, if you ask an academic to give you an answer, they’ll say, well, I’ll get a grant for three years. I’ll spend a year analysing the data, it’ll take me a year to publish. I’ll give you the answer in five years time. And the policy maker will say, no, I need the answer next Tuesday.
So working at the UK and the Scottish level, we get papers on policy and we’re asked literally to comment on them that night, or for a couple of days time. And there is a danger in being purist and saying to people, this is the ideal thing to do when you should do all these things of cocreation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And they say, but without have the time. And I accept that. And I think we’ve got to be as academics, understanding of those constraints, but at the same time, number one, in preparation, setting up the structures which make good policy-making possible is really important. So setting up structures of cocreation are really important. And secondly, even when there is time constraints, a little bit can go a long way, a little bit of dialogue showing that you are attempting to involve people, as I say, could make all the difference between the policy being their policy dumped on us and our policy, which we’ve developed together, which we want to take forward together.
Rebekah: [00:23:46] I mean, just picking up on the work you have been doing, advising both the UK and the Scottish governments. I mean, certainly at the start of the pandemic, not surprisingly a lot of the focus and certainly a lot of the media coverage was very much on the sort of hard scientific evidence in terms of the number of cases, the number of deaths, a lot of the epidemiological modeling with social science maybe seeming to come in sort of slightly later, and the behavioural dimension certainly getting more attention, sort of more recently. In those conversations, do you feel there is a parity of esteem around the different types of evidence, and then how does this sort of behavioural work sit alongside and help support some of that more physical science work? I can put it in those terms.
Steve: [00:24:24] Well, I mean, the simple answer is, I don’t know. Well, I mean, we do have a hierarchy of, you know, even the terminology of hard science and soft science, isn’t particularly helpful. The one thing I would say, I mean, one of the pleasures of this process has been working with others and getting to know others and the interdisciplinary nature.
So if you look at the UK level, we’re part of a behavioural science group that feeds into SAGE it’s called SPI-B. Makes it sound terribly James Bond, but sadly no Aston Martin’s and no martini, it’s not at all glamorous, but what is rather wonderful about it is, you know, you sit with anthropologists, you sit with criminologists, you sit with sociologists and we are all working together trying to pool our understandings.
And actually we learn from each other. So I’ve learned an immense amount. In the Scottish group, Scotland being smaller, we don’t have a whole panoply of committees. We have just the one. And again, I mean, I find it utterly fascinating to work with epidemiologists, with modelers and so on and learn a huge amount from them.
And my sense of it is that we recognise actually the interdependence of what we’re doing. Now I think one of the dangers early on was that the behavioural science was almost used against what came out of the medical advice. So early on, before lockdown, when people were beginning to point to the dangers of so many deaths if we didn’t lock down, the notion of behavioural fatigue was invoked. And that was used to say we can’t lock down too early because people can only stick with it for so long. And so in that sense, what seemed to be a psychological argument was used against what was coming out from the modelers and so on.
And I think that was profoundly unhelpful, which we found to be unhelpful for two reasons; not only because it undermined what seemed to be medically necessary, but because it was wrong, it didn’t come from a psychologist. It didn’t come from SPI-B. It was misinformed. And to my mind, where things are valuable is where I learn from the epidemiologists what steps are necessary to stop the infection.
I don’t know that. I know that no more than know anybody else in the street. I listened to them and they will say, well, these are the probabilities of getting infected at different distances, which is why we need to keep this distance. And then my job, or our job as behavioural scientists is to say, okay, how can we support you by understanding the best ways of getting people to comply, but equally understanding what the difficulties will be.
So I see it very much as an interdependent relationship where I depend upon them to know what needs to be done. And they depend on me to understand how we can get it to be done.
Rebekah: [00:27:13] I mean, I think that interdisciplinarity approach is really important to all sorts of challenges, not just the pandemic and as you know, the Royal Society of Edinburgh is unusual as a National Academy in that we do embrace not only the breadth of academia – so from the physical sciences and life sciences to social sciences and arts and humanities, but also reach into business and public service. And that means that when you’re looking at challenge, you can take account of all these different perspectives.
But in terms of, you know, I mean it’s interesting that you’re working both for the UK and the Scottish government. Are you seeing any particular differences now in terms of the way that they’re taking account of people’s behaviour and the behavioural dimension of, of the pandemic in response to it?
Steve: [00:27:54] I mean, the big difference between the UK level and the Scottish level is that Scotland is smaller. And therefore there are less steps between us and the decision making. So when I sit on SPI-B we have discussions and we put forward papers and then it kind of disappears into the aether. It goes into SAGE, it comes out of SAGE then into the cabinet office; from the cabinet office, it then goes into the group of ministers who are making decisions. And then it goes to the prime minister who makes a decision.
And in between all those various steps, various other things are feeding in. So it’s quite hard to see what influence you have. It’s quite hard to see what the impact of the science is going to be. It’s quite hard to see, you know, what all the other forms of information are that feed in.
I seem to remember a poem by Ted Hughes called My Sad Captains, where he talks about you write your poem and then it sets sail and who knows how people understand it and how it’s used. And it can be blown in any direction. I have slightly the same feeling about being involved in the UK process. You know, we launch papers, but they’re blown all over the place. It’s hard to see where they end up.
The Scottish system is much more direct. We meet, we discuss, then we have conversations with the actual decision makers. Sometimes there are other considerations and they will say no, we can’t always do what you suggest. A lot of the time they do. And therefore there’s a much more direct process and it’s a, in many ways it’s much more satisfying to see what the fate of, of your work is. In some sense, that’s innevitable I think in differences of scale.
Rebekah: [00:29:36] But coming back, I think it’s also really important for the trust point as well. I mean, we know that actually the more that governments and policymakers can communicate the rationale behind their decision, that even if people don’t like that decision, at least they then, they understand, well, there was this influence around the research and the evidence, but we also have to take account issues of, for example, public acceptibility and issues like that, and obviously financial costs.
I mean, just maybe picking up on the public acceptibility point, I’m just wondering at what point certain behaviours become unacceptable. So I’m thinking particularly of wearing face masks and at the moment, you know, people are being advised, obviously to wear face masks in enclosed spaces like public transport and shops, but not really being told that they have to.
I mean, at what point do we start to see that sort of behaviour as being seen as socially unacceptable, which then influences behaviours of other people in turn?
Steve: [00:30:27] The issue of face masks is fascinating and very complex. For many years I’ve done work on behaviour in mass gatherings. And because of that, I got drawn into the WHO networks on mass gatherings medicine, which centre very much on the Hajj, of the pilgrimage to Mecca. Because for many years, the great fear was the Hajj would be the basis of a pandemic. People come from over 160 countries. They mingle, they catch each other’s infections. They go back home and they spread it around the world. And so the issue of face masks was a big issue there.
And one of the points is that a lot of the research done on facemasks and the effectiveness of facemasks is under lab conditions where people wear them perfectly and dispose of them perfectly, which ignores the behavioural dimension that if you use a face mask badly, if you fit it badly, if you touch it too much and then touch other surfaces, if you dispose of it badly; actually it can possibly get rid of the benefits or even do more harm than good.
So the behavioural dimension is critical. And so facemasks, it’s not face masks, which save anything it’s wearing face masks and using them effectively, that does things and as I say, it has a combination of an epidemiological and even a physical dimension in terms of the spread of microdroplets. And it has a psychological dimension.
Now, one of the psychological dimensions then is how do face masks impact act on other behaviours? So if you have the face mask, how does it affect social distancing for instance, and how does it affect hygiene? Do people think they’re invulnerable and therefore do other things badly? So that’s one question.
Second question, which I think is a really interesting one which you raise is the normative question. Okay. What does it imply? How does it affect relations between people? Because historically you’re quite right. Face masks aren’t something we do. Face masks are seen as a… and then there’s been hostility, I mean actually in part racist hostility, but because a lot of people who wear facemasks come from those countries in the far East where there’ve been pandemics, but hostility towards people who wear facemasks. So again, to me, It’s partly understanding what the dynamics are, but also understanding where we need to make changes.
And it is arguable again, that the wearing of facemasks is less to protect me than to protect you. That most facemasks that we wear won’t stop me getting the infection from somebody else, but if I am unwell it will stop me spreading it. So it could be that face masks begin to denote a sense of concern for others and they help build a sense of communal concern. And then that way are helpful in building a sense of communal identity.
Those are all questions. And those are all areas where I don’t have simple answers because the research hasn’t been done, but it does feed in to the discussions and the messaging around wearing face masks. And to me the importance of wearing face masks and the reason why I sometimes do it is because I want to denote to people. I take seriously my responsibility to others. So in part, the issue about face masks is should we, or shouldn’t we, but another aspect of face masks is how do we message it? How do we present it? How do we use it to build that overall sense of we and concern for others?
Rebekah: [00:33:56] But I think what again it demonstrates is actually the complexity of this issue. So it’s much harder than, you know, wear your seat belt where it simply is you’re either wearing it or you’re not; or drinking and driving. It’s much less complicated about the unintended consequences that might arise from that behaviour that may be detrimental rather than positive.
Steve: [00:34:15] It is complicated in the detail, but again around the general principles, I think there are some general principles and the basic general principle is do well by others. So show social responsibility. Act for us. And within that framework, then one has principles which help guide the specifics. And as I say for me, me wearing a mask is a sense of concern for others.
Rebekah: [00:34:39] So there’s, I mean, we’ve talked a lot about the importance of behaviours in terms of controlling the pandemic and its spread. I guess, one of the other things we’ve seen is actually how behaviours have changed on the back of that, particularly the lockdowns. Sometimes in what might be seen as positive way, so people eating more healthily, taking more exercise and sometimes in more negative ways in terms of alcohol consumption and gambling behaviours.
Are those behaviours likely to be sustained over time or what will impact upon whether, you know, whether people continue to exercise or eat healthily or gamble or drink more? I mean, is it about how much time passes or is it something else that will influence that?
Steve: [00:35:15] The question of the longterm impacts of the pandemic, both behavioural and social, I think are really important, but I think there is a danger in posing them in a fatalistic way. So let me say something first of all, about the political implications, because I think that that makes it easier to talk about, if you like the more personal behavioural changes.
So all sorts of people, you know, either suggest that the pandemic will create a dystopia and some who claim it will lead to a utopia. So some people will say it points to all the consequences of inequality and therefore will allow us to change inequality. Now inevitably, other interests will intervene and there are other reasons why dealing with inequality is extremely difficult. What we might be given by the pandemic is a very clear understanding of the costs and a very clear vision perhaps of an alternative. And therefore it’s a set of resources, which will help us to mobilise people in fighting politically for equality or against particular forms of inequality. So it is if you like a resource that will play into a political process.
But the more you think it is inevitable you demobilise people. You say, well, you don’t need to do anything it’s going to happen. So that leaves the paradox, that the more that we think something is inevitable, the less likely it is to happen. So I think always what we’re talking about is what we’ve learned, what visions we have, what rhetorics become available, but that can then feed into the political process. Nothing is going to happen independently.
And the same goes, when you look at the individual level, that as we go into a different world, the context which scaffold particular behaviours will change. And unless we are very attentive to the context and the conditions under which we changed our behaviour, then everything will change again. It’s not going to be inevitable, but at least it gives us a basis of being able to say, well, actually that was rather good, behaving that way. It was rather useful to exercise more. So how can I arrange my social world in a way that supports it rather than undermines it.
But again, if you just think it’s going to happen, It’s not going to happen. You’ll just forget about it, it’ll go away. It will be like new year’s resolutions, which will last till about the 2nd of January.
Rebekah: [00:37:38] And I guess the, I mean, there’s been quite a few conversations, I guess, more recently about how government can help support sustaining of behaviours, and coming back to some of those things that we know help in terms of making things easy for people, so I’m thinking about some of the things that have been done around walking and cycling, which then provide the infrastructure and make it easier for people to demonstrate positive behaviours, I guess.
Steve: [00:37:59] One of the most important things in that regard, I think has to do with issues of social connectivity.
One of the mistakes that we made early on was to talk about social distancing. Unfortunately, the term has stuck and we still use it despite the fact that many, many people including the WHO pointed out that no, we don’t want social distancing. Right? We want physical distancing because physical proximity kills, but also social isolation kills.
I was looking just the other day. At a meta analysis of health risks and being socially disconnected is worse for you than smoking, and smoking about 15 cigarettes a day. Actually, when you look at people to rate health risks, they will always put things like drinking and smoking first, and they will put things like social connectedness last. Actually social connectedness is one of the most important things of all.
Now, one of the things that we therefore that, that, that you have to ask, and it’s a paradox is how do we say socially together, while physically apart? In fact, the book that we’ve written on the pandemic on the psychology of the pandemic, picks up on that it’s called Together Apart.
And one of the most interesting developments in, I think in psychology in recent years, has been the interface between group psychology and studies of health. So you begin to find that being a member of a social group and through that membership of a social group, feeling collected even to strangers or members of that group has a huge health effect.
So for instance, if you are, I think it’s an 80 year old who has a membership of multiple social groups and through those feels socially connected, you have the cognitive performance of a 70 year old. If you were an 80 year old who has no group memberships and formed connectedness, you have the cognitive performance of a 90 year old.
If on retirement, you lose two group memberships, you have something like a 15% chance of dying within two years. If you gain two new group memberships, you start becoming part of new groups with new networks of social support, your chance of dying within two years is half a percent. So in many ways we are learning the power of social connectedness, and we are using new platforms in order to maintain that connectedness.
For instance, every Sunday, my wife’s family, eight groups of people in different parts of the country. We have family quiz now in a way that we never did before. I would see them, you know, now and then, so I hope we can learn the creativity of the forms of social connectedness can be maintained in a way that sustains both our psychological, but also our physical wellbeing, particularly for people who are on the whole more socially isolated.
But again, those are not things that are going to happen inevitably, we have to be very active and very conscious in understanding their value and in making sure that we arrange our lives so that they continue.
Rebekah: [00:40:56] Thank you. So final question from me; I mean, you’ve obviously been studying the area of behaviours for, for a very long time now, and in a great deal of depth and in different contexts. Is there anything that surprised you in terms of the behavioural responses to the pandemic?
Steve: [00:41:11] I think if anything, the thing that surprised me is, I mean, you do this work and you study these things and you kind of believe in them, but in the back of your head, there’s always a sense of, really? Are you sure?
And so I think the levels of compliance, even though I intellectually would have argued it before, still there was a doubt of am I sure I’m right? They have been quite remarkable.
One of the problems in the coverage of the pandemic has been that violations and transgressions are always more newsworthy than when people comply. So when early on, people were stockpiling; a picture of a Tesco’s with people fighting over loo rolls. Well, well that’s news. But a picture of a Tesco’s with loo rolls just there, isn’t. So we have all these stories of violation. We have all these stories of people breaking lockdown, but the real headline was remarkable and largely hidden acts of compliance under incredibly difficult circumstances.
So I remember that the day after the Cummings press conference, where it was all over the news, they had a story of a family, a black family, where the mother – single parent – had got COVID-19. And she was extremely ill. But the 11 year old had to look after the baby. But they had so little food that they were watering down baked beans in order to eat. And yet they weren’t going out when it would have been easy, they weren’t violating lockdown. They were doing it because they felt it was the right thing for the community.
And those multiple small, actually rather big acts of solidarity to me are quite remarkable and deeply moving. And it’s that, which I think puts flesh on abstract ideas and makes the work really worthwhile and shows how important it is.
Rebekah: [00:43:08] Well, thank you very much, Professor Steve Reicher for sharing your knowledge and expertise around behaviours and the impact of the COVID pandemic. Thank you.
Steve: [00:43:16] Thank you.