Monday, 25 May 2020

COVID-19 lockdown- 'All in it together'?

The news that Boris Johnson's aide Dominic Cummings broke lockdown restrictions to drive 260 miles from London to Durham when he and his wife had possible COVID symptoms has created a media storm that is voicing fears that public adherence to the lockdown could unravel. Boris Johnson's insistence on backing Cummings' breach of regulations while millions of others were respecting them (often at great hardship to themselves and their families) has created a significant backlash that has united Tory MPs, religious leaders and both the right-wing and left-wing media. Furthermore, the response to this scandal suggests that the advice given to the government by behavioural experts on how to communicate with the public during major emergencies seems to have been comprehensively ignored.

Top crowd psychologist Professor Steve Reicher was interviewed on Good Morning Britain about this emerging scandal on May 25th. He spoke about how the mass adherence to the lockdown restrictions that we saw during the first phase (from 23/3-10/5/20) can be explained psychologically by people acting for the wider common good, and not primarily for their own individual interests (as only a minority of the population are classified as vulnerable groups and/or in need of shielding from COVID). Along with John Drury in an article for the Psychologist in March written just before the lockdown, he argued that the response to COVID would be more effective if a collective (as opposed to individualized) identity approach was adopted ('we're all in this together'). Steve Reicher knows what he's talking about, as along with other psychologists, he sits on the SPI-B group that advises the government's Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) advising on the COVID response. In a series of Tweets, he illustrates how Boris Johnson backing Dominic Cummings has now 'trashed' all the advice they gave about how to communicate with the public in emergencies to encourage greater compliance with necessary safety measures, and this advice echoes recommendations that myself and others have made on how to encourage greater resilience in the public in emergencies (Drury et al, 2019). In my previous blogpost written just before the initial COVID lockdown in March, I was critical of the delay in implementing the lockdown, especially because it seemed to be based upon concerns about 'behavioural fatigue' in the public at lockdown measures- a concept that lacked evidence in the social sciences, and that myself and others had not heard of previously. In a later Podcast in April that I did for my University, I talked about social distancing and why compliance with the first phase of lockdown restrictions had been much better than expected- something that seemed to have surprised the media and authorities, but not those of us who research mass emergencies, as our work has shown countless examples of how well people and communities can cope with adversity. However, while such collective resilience is heartening to see, and also what we predicted, it cannot be taken for granted, and those in authority need to work with the public to develop and maintain a sense of collective unity that encourages more co-operative behaviour in mass emergencies. 

Use of rhetoric in emergencies:
Over the years I have spoken frequently to those involved in emergency planning and response from many different backgrounds about the research I have done with colleagues. I am pleased to observe that over time there seems to be increased acceptance for our overall message that human behaviour in mass emergencies is usually much better than is often expected, and that the concept of 'mass panic' where people behave selfishly and/or irrationally is largely a myth. This co-operative behaviour is best explained by the emergence of a shared identity during the incident among those affected (most of whom would have been total strangers before the incident began) So, for example, the work I did with John Drury & Steve Reicher on the 7/7/2005 London bombings (Drury et al 2009 a & b) found that those directly affected by the explosions often talked about a shared identity, and a sense that they were 'all in it together', so therefore, everyone needed to co-operate together to escape the threat.

Therefore, I am a passionate advocate of this concept of the togetherness and collective resilience that can emerge from a shared sense of urgency to escape from life threatening emergencies. However, I am also often asked whether such resilience to one-off 'big bang' events can endure in the face of ongoing adversity (such as during the current COVID-19 pandemic). My usual response is that we need to know more to be able to answer that question effectively, but what evidence there is (such as a classic study of civilian populations' resilience in the face of the bombing campaigns of WW2), seems to show that collective resilience can endure under the right circumstances. However, such resilience requires those in authority to be honest, open and consistent in their messaging and to treat the public equitably. If there is a public sense of inequity ('one rule for us and another for them') and/or belief that others are not adhering to necessary social norms (such as adhering to the lockdown restrictions) then such collective resilience can dissipate, as people no longer feel such a shared bond to behave co-cooperatively and are more likely to behave competitively. Studies of international emergencies (such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake- Rahill et al, 2014) have also found that if disasters exacerbate existing inequality, then this can lead to tension and/or violence between the 'haves' and 'have-nots'. Therefore, appeals by politicians for people to come together in emergencies need to be backed up with real practical attempts to engender and maintain such collective unity, otherwise it risks becoming empty rhetoric that will simply fall on deaf ears. 

The current scandal regarding Dominic Cummings' visit to Durham in breach of lockdown restrictions should not just be a political point scoring exercise, as there could be real consequences for overall public behaviours in this current pandemic. So for instance, if people become aware that others are not staying at home and/or not maintaining appropriate social distancing when outside, then they will be less motivated to do so themselves, and this can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophesy (especially if the media report stories of people visiting beauty spots en masse). If the actions of Dominic Cummings erode further public trust in and compliance with the current lockdown restrictions, we may live (or not) to regret the consequences of how this scandal affects our ability to maintain a united response to the current COVID pandemic.


Drury, J., Cocking, C., & Reicher, S. (2009a). Everyone for themselves? Understanding how crowd solidarity can arise in an emergency: An interview study of disaster survivors. British Journal of Social Psychology 48487-506

Drury, J., Cocking, C., Reicher, S. (2009b). The nature of collective ‘resilience’: Survivor reactions to the July 7th (2005) London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 27 (1) 66-95.

Drury J, Carter H, Cocking C, Ntontis E, Tekin Guven S and Amlôt R (2019) Facilitating Collective Psychosocial Resilience in the Public in Emergencies: Twelve Recommendations Based on the Social Identity Approach. Frontiers in Public Health 7:141. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141

Rahill G, Ganapati E, Clérismé J & Mukherji A (2014) Shelter recovery in urban Haiti after the earthquake: the dual role of social capital. Disasters, 38, (1) 73-93

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Coronavirus and Social Psychology

The Coronavirus has become a global pandemic and taken its hold in most countries, particularly in Europe. As I write this there are now over 150,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, with 1,140 in the UK, and tragically nearly 6000 deaths (although this figure will no doubt rise in the coming weeks and months). There are also plans to limit large scale gatherings and isolate the over 70s in the UK, and many European countries are already in lock-down, with flight and/or entry bans. In my own Higher Education sector, there have been moves to provide more online teaching and the University of Liverpool recently announced a ban on face to face classes, with other universities already following this lead. We are clearly facing a global health emergency not seen since the Spanish flu pandemic from 1918-1920, and so we need to take urgent and drastic action. In this blog I will explore why I think the current UK government's response is inadequate (and possibly based on selective and/or flawed interpretations of the scientific evidence), but also provide positive examples of how I think we can get through this crisis. 

UK response
It has been reported that many UK scientists are critical of the government's current response to the crisis as it is putting more lives at risk, and nearly 250 have signed an open letter calling for the urgent implementation of stronger social distancing measures. There have also been discussions about concerns of  possible 'fatigue' in the public complying with necessary lock-down behaviours, and in a recent Twitter exchange with The Psychologist, myself and others questioned the evidence base for where such concerns have come from. There is also an open letter by behavioural scientists calling for more transparency relating to the evidence used to support this assumption of behavioural fatigue. As a counter-point, a classic study by Charles Fritz into disasters and mental health, found that civilian populations were remarkably resilient in the face of open ended threats- particularly the bombing of UK & German cities in WW2, and they never reached a point where they were no longer able to cope with the threat and the wider social fabric fell apart. It does also seem that the UK authorities have been rather selective in their use of evidence from social science, and a recent blog by Oliver Klein criticized their apparent over-emphasis on nudge theory (an approach introduced when David Cameron was PM). Nudge theory has been criticized by social psychologists (Mols et al 2015) as being ethically dubious (it subtly manipulates people to subconsciously change their behaviour), and also that social identity approaches would be more effective in encouraging compliance with positive health related behaviours by getting people to actively identify with the positive social norms suggested by appealing to the greater collective benefit.

Social distancing
There is an emerging consensus among the scientific community that stricter social distancing measures (such as those currently in place in Italy and Spain) are urgently needed in the UK- something I wholeheartedly support. On the face of it, social distancing may seem a little counter-intuitive to someone who created this very blog to highlight the social benefits of crowds. However, there are obviously very valid reasons for curtailing mass gatherings in the current pandemic, and many epidemiologists are calling for such measures to be taken to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus (a recent tweet Brian Cox highlighted the sheer illogicality of cramming people together for hours at US airports in a supposed effort to reduce infection). Previous evidence from the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic shows that social distancing can have a real effect in reducing mortality rates. Therefore, we need to consider how can we encourage a shared sense of identity and hence collective support in the absence of the face to face interactions you would see at mass gatherings. There are concerns about the possible negative psychological impacts of quarantine and self-isolation (see a recent review by Brooks et al in The Lancet), and Haslam et al (2018)'s work on the Social Cure also highlights the possible negative effects of social isolation. Therefore, it is vital to emphasize the importance of maintaining social connections when people are self-isolating, and this is where social media and other forms of online support can play a crucial role.  For instance, there are already various on-line community groups that have been set up to support people more at risk from COVID-19, such as this Facebook page for Brighton COVID-19 Mutual Aid, and below is a postcard that is being put through people's doors nationally to offer help.

Image may contain: text
There have been numerous reports of people stockpiling goods especially toilet roll (which to the best of my knowledge won't help mitigate any of the symptoms of Coronavirus!), which has caused much speculation by the media and other commentators that this is irrational 'panic-buying'. I would say that while we clearly need to discourage stockpiling of goods, far from being an example of 'panic', such action is a classic example of a social dilemma, whereby what is in the individual interest (stocking up on goods before they run out) is not in the collective interest, as there aren't enough stocks in the supply chain for everyone to do this. Furthermore, those that are doing the stockpiling (eg those who are young, fit, and have the financial resources to do so) are less likely to be the ones who are most at risk from COVID-19. There are now calls for supermarkets to restrict some products, including this tweet from a retired senior police officer. Thankfully, these calls seem to have been heard, and supermarkets are now asking people to only buy what they need. However, as is depressingly common, the media still insists on reporting these situations as 'panic-buying', thus creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, as happened in the 2012 fuel crisis, and I made this very point in an interview for BBC Radio5 Live (my bit starts 21.40 into it). What the media should be reporting is the equally true (if not as exciting) message that if people only bought what they needed in the short term, then there would be sufficient stocks for everyone. The term 'panic' itself is also deeply problematic, as it doesn't accurately reflect what people actually do in emergencies, and myself and other colleagues have been arguing for years that the term shouldn't be used to describe emergency behaviour- see The truth about panic on the British psychological Society's web-page about Coronavirus.

 Notice to shoppers in Brighton superstore

Don't personalize, collectivize!
In The Psychologist online page on Coronavirus, John Drury and Steve Reicher argue that we need to collectivize the response to COVID-19 and this is best done by not appealing to selfish individual interests (will I survive?), and instead focus on broader collective interests (how do we all get through this?). This backs up a recent paper done in collaboration with colleagues involved in researching emergencies on how to advise planners to manage emergencies effectively (Drury et al, 2019).  One of the over-arching recommendations was that cooperation is more likely when people feel a shared sense of threat, and so we need to encourage people to develop a common identity in response to this threat (eg encourage the idea that we're all in this together and we need to cooperate to come through it effectively). There is historical precedent for this, and a recent article by Chris Creegan highlights the organisation and collective solidarity that emerged from the LGBTQ community in response to the AIDS virus, and how such solidarity is crucial in the current crisis;
'The key to all this — and the clue to how we survive a plague now — was community activism. However governments act, and they must, our way through this lies with all of us — in civil society. Whatever the necessity of ‘social distancing’ our need for social connection has been brought into the sharpest relief imaginable. We will get through this together.

So, I would like to end with a more positive message that I believe we can get through this crisis if we work together and don't compete with each other. I do not in any way want to downplay the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak, and I know that people will be fearful of losing loved ones (I am very concerned about my own family members who are in the high risk demographic groups). However, I think it is also worth remembering that most people (even those in high risk groups) will either not contract COVID-19, or make a full recovery, and that we will all get through this if we pull together. However, we do need to act collectively to overcome this crisis, as that will result in a much more effective response than if we act in more individual ways.


Drury, J., Carter, H., Cocking, C., Ntontis, E., Tekin Guven, S., & Amlôt, R. (2019). Facilitating collective psychosocial resilience in the public in emergencies: Twelve recommendations based on the social identity approach. Frontiers in Public Health, 7 (141) doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2019.00141

Haslam C, Jetten J, Cruwys C, Dingle GD, Haslam SA. (2018).The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure. London: Routledge  

Mols F, Mols S. Haslam A, Jetten J & Steffens N (2015) Why a nudge is not enough: A social identity critique of governance by stealth. European Journal of Political Research 54: 81–98, 2015