Stephen Reicher at The Conversation: “During the pandemic, a lot of assumptions were made about how people behave. Many of those assumptions were wrong, and they led to disastrous policies.
Several governments worried that their pandemic restrictions would quickly lead to “behavioural fatigue” so that people would stop adhering to restrictions. In the UK, the prime minister’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings recently admitted that this was the reason for not locking down the country sooner.
Meanwhile, former health secretary Matt Hancock revealed that the government’s failure to provide financial and other forms of support for people to self-isolate was down to their fear that the system “might be gamed”. He warned that people who tested positive may then falsely claim that they had been in contact with all their friends, so they could all get a payment.
These examples show just how deeply some governments distrust their citizens. As if the virus was not enough, the public was portrayed as an additional part of the problem. But is this an accurate view of human behaviour?
The distrust is based on two forms of reductionism – describing something complex in terms of its fundamental constituents. The first is limiting psychology to the characteristics – and more specifically the limitations – of individual minds. In this view the human psyche is inherently flawed, beset by biases that distort information. It is seen as incapable of dealing with complexity, probability and uncertainty – and tending to panic in a crisis.
This view is attractive to those in power. By emphasising the inability of people to govern themselves, it justifies the need for a government to look after them. Many governments subscribe to this view, having established so-called nudge units – behavioural science teams tasked with subtly manipulating people to make the “right” decisions, without them realising why, from eating less sugar to filing their taxes on time. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this approach is limited. As the pandemic has shown, it is particularly flawed when it comes to behaviour in a crisis.
In recent years, research has shown that the notion of people panicking in a crisis is something of a myth. People generally respond to crises in a measured and orderly way – they look after each other.
The key factor behind this behaviour is the emergence of a sense of shared identity. This extension of the self to include others helps us care for those around us and expect support from them. Resilience cannot be reduced to the qualities of individual people. It tends to be something that emerges in groups.
Another type of reductionism that governments adopt is “psychologism” – when you reduce the explanation of people’s behaviour to just psychology…(More)”.