Covid-19 and the Psychology of Human Behaviour

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

By now, we have experienced the Covid pandemic for almost a year. Last January, we kept reading about the spread of the virus in China, which back then seemed to be quite a distant thing… As of the end of January 2020 though, the WHO declared Coronavirus a global pandemic and, with the spread of cases and the first far-reaching restrictions, the reality started slowly sinking in. Still, at the beginning of it, I optimistically contemplated on the idea that the global interconnectedness, while enhancing the spread of the virus, could also serve to better mobilize resources  and cope with the virus globally. By the end of April, as the majority of countries had already implemented social (or better: physical) distancing, lockdowns and other restrictions, I wrote a blog piece about adapting to these new rules, yet as the summer months approached, it was easier again to muse about the hopeful ideas of a post-Corona world. As far as wishful thinking goes though, the reality is tough: the global pandemic is far from under control. WHO data indicates that as of February 1, 2021, there have been over 100 million confirmed cases with over 2 million deaths worldwide. Although vaccines are on the way to the general populations, the Covid reality continues…

Given this year long experience of adversity, it is no wonder that we might start to experience fatigue and apathy towards the virus. We are witnessing more protests against Covid restrictions in several European countries and the US; and stories of breaking Covid rules are regular news. Indeed, the experience seems so common that WHO came out with a framework of maintaining and reinvigorating public motivation to prevent Covid-19, in response to an emerging pandemic fatigue among the population.

WHO’s proposed strategies urge governments to acknowledge peoples’ hardships of the pandemic experience, while maintaining the general goal of supporting and directing human behaviours toward continuous pandemic management. As such, it is crucial to understand the psychological roots and explanations of human behaviour at this point. Luckily, there are several thoughts and some data out there already…

In March last year, a collaboration of 100+ researchers launched a global study of Covid-19 responses and influencing factors. By now, based on 60,000 responses from more than 30 countries, the researchers were able to come up with some preliminary results, which indicate that Coronavirus related behaviours are outcomes of a complex picture of both personal and collective motivations. For example, the preliminary results suggest that people could be better motivated to follow health guidelines, if such behaviour appeals to their financial well-being, as opposed to health. In other words, the data shows that on average people are more motivated by their financial losses or gains, than by their health risks or safety.

Apart from the important role of financial strain, responses to Covid-19 also seem politicized. This easily observable notion (at least based on the U.S.), was found to be true also based on U.S. news coverage analytics, which suggested high degrees of politicization and polarization of publicly present views, information and suggestions about the virus. Hence, as long as the approach to Covid-19 remains a matter of political views and ideology, political motivation is heavily involved in shaping human virus-related behaviour as well.

The aforementioned global study data also indicate the important factor of trust towards government. Interestingly though, trust is associated with higher motivation to abide by public rules and policies aimed to constrain the virus, as long as one doesn’t feel aggrieved and disempowered in society. As such, transparent, clear and empathic communication by government needs to be complemented with practical efforts of reducing grievances.

To name just a few, responses to the Covid-19 reality may be subject to more general tendencies of stronger financial motivators and individualised factors related to political preferences, group identification and trust towards government, let alone the external circumstances, such as the amount of experienced hardship. For more details, there is an informative and fairly comprehensive overview of social and behavioural sciences applied to Covid-19 by Dr. Jay Van Bavel available on youtube, for instance.

Among other things, Dr. Van Bavel also mentions cultural syndromes. For example, thinking about the reasons why many Asian countries seem to have contained the virus more successfully than the U.S. or European countries, it is relevant to consider dimensions of individualism-collectivism and tightness-looseness of cultures. Collectivistic cultures, which are more inclined towards emphasising collective well-being over individual interests (relative to individualistic cultures), seem to benefit from this tendency in the current situation. In a similar vein, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand argues that countries with ’loose’ cultures, which reflect a rather relaxed attitude towards following and breaking rules, are hit harder by Covid. This makes good sense: in a country with cultural traditions of loose attitudes towards social norms, adapting to strict Covid-related rules and regulations seems like a much tougher challenge than for a ’tight’ society, where rules, compliance and conformity have been historically well established. As Michele Gelfand highlights, the spirit of rule-breaking, which could have served as a favourable wind for creativity and innovation in the U.S., has now turned into a major liability. The same could be true for many Europeans as well. Therefore, she is urging societies to develop so-called cultural ambidexterity, which involves adjusting the degree of tightness or looseness of society based on the conditions we face.

All in all, the global pandemic continues to pose substantial challenges… and if at the beginning we focused on understanding, explaining and predicting the essense and behavior of the virus, then now, it is the human behavior that should be taken under the microscope.

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