The collective psychology of coronavirus

Just like climate change or political tribalism, coronavirus asks us: do we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or an atomised “I”?

By Alex Evans — 13th Jan · 9 min read

First published on Global Dashboard on 13 March 2020.

Just like climate change or political tribalism, coronavirus asks us: do we see ourselves as part of a Larger Us, a them-and-us, or an atomised “I”?

Each of us is answering that question all the time right now. Do we hoard hand sanitiser, or leave enough for others? Do we observe social distancing protocols, or shrug and figure we’re young enough that the symptoms will be no big deal so why worry? Do we think we’re all in this together, or do we blame it on others (the Chinese, the Mexicans, the Americans)?

All this makes me think about the stuff I’ve been working on over the last couple of years in the Collective Psychology Project (CPP), which I set up in 2018 – and in particular the importance of whether we respond to perceived threats by going into fight-or-flight or tend-and-befriend mode.

Fight-or-flight – or more accurately, fight / flight / freeze – is a natural reaction to threat or feelings of overwhelm. But it’s not particularly helpful in the face of a collective threat like coronavirus. It’s a primal response, not a considered one. It focuses on the interests of the individual, not the collective. It reduces our capacity to empathise, and makes us more vulnerable to extremism or other hyper-tribal thinking. It leads to behaviours that push us apart.

With tend-and-befriend, on the other hand, we respond to danger by tending ourselves and our families, and befriending others so as to build dense social networks of mutual assistance. It’s a far more prosocial response to threat. It emphasises our interdependence with one another, and regards it as a source of strength rather than vulnerability. Where fight-or-flight zones out on the individual and pushes us apart, tend-and-befriend focuses on the collective and brings us together.

So what can help us into tend-and-befriend and out of fight-or-flight? In our work at CPP, we highlight three factors in particular: Agency, Belonging, and Conscious self-awareness, or ABC for short. Briefly,

  • Agency is about whether we feel like we have power to shape our lives;
  • Belonging is about whether we feel connected or alone; and
  • Conscious self-awareness is about whether we have the presence of mind to be able to choose how to react to the stuff that happens in our lives rather than our amygdala (the part of our brain that deals with threats) choosing for us.

All three are really relevant to coronavirus.

Start with agency. This is what what we’re really looking for when we fill our shopping trollies with enough to survive a zombie apocalypse: the sense of being able to do something to control our circumstances. (And actually, while panic buying is clearly bad, some calm, steady stocking up is good, in that it puts additional slack in the system. Read this great thread.)

But for the Larger Us version of agency, we need to go beyond stocking up our own personal bunker, and think about our communities. A lot of people in our communities – especially elderly people – are going to have a very hard time over the next couple of months. 80% of those with coronavirus will need to tough it out at home. Many more, like those with weak immune systems or existing conditions, will also need to self-isolate.

There’s a lot we can do to help them without compromising social distancing. Buying food or medicines. Cooking food if needed, and leaving it at the doorstep. Setting up systems for checking in on vulnerable people to make sure they’re OK.

Which brings us to belonging. Loneliness is terrible for health at the best of times; as bad for life expectancy as smoking 15 a day. Now imagine being an elderly person living alone and finding that not only are the grandchildren off limits for the next three months, but so are the ‘weak ties’ that constitute your day-to-day social contact: the GP, the postman, the person at the supermarket checkout.

Again, we can do a lot to allay this – and the boredom, anxiety, and grief that all of us may be about to face – by coming together. Now, before the tsunami hits, is exactly the right time to be reaching out to our neighbours, whether by email or with fliers or a poster on a lamp post, to set up a street level WhatsApp or Facebook group.

A month from now, when we’re at the peak, we may find that to be an incredibly valuable source of belonging: a platform to share news and memes to keep us sane, and to create a sense of shared identity that nurtures our sense of rootedness in the places where we live even when we can’t go out into them.

And then there’s conscious self-awareness – the one that tips the balance between fight-or-flight and tend-and-befriend. This is a deeply weird time. As Venkatesh Rao notes on Ribbonfarm, it’s one of those moments – like 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall – when our master narrative is collapsing. Suddenly, everything is uncertain. With no story to guide us, we zone out on maths. (“Pantry stocks math. Alcohol percentage math. Infection risk math. Toilet paper math.”)

Amid such uncertainty, with no guiding story to fall back on, we’re prone to a another kind of contagion besides the virus itself: infection with other people’s mental and emotional states. As yesterday’s market crashes showed, panic can ripple through our collective central nervous system as quickly as a murmuration of starlings changes course. More subtly, we can find (as I did last night) that a 3 hour Twitter information binge can leave you feeling depressed and edgy rather than informed and prepared.

So even as we care for others – and, in doing so, increase our own sense of agency and belonging – we need to look after ourselves. Everyone’s version of self-care is different. It might mean meditation. Time in nature. Eating healthily. Reading Stoic philosophy, or a Harry Potter novel. Yoga. Favourite music. Looking at the stars.

Conversely, don’t zone out on the news all day. Curate your social media feed to mute haters and panic spreaders. Try to defuse polarisation and fake news when you come across them.

All of us need to manage our mental and emotional states now more than ever. Not just for our own wellbeing, but also because our inner states end up affecting everything else around us. That’s the whole point about collective psychology: the state of the world affects our states of mind, and our states of mind affect the world. Coronavirus brings that fact into especially sharp relief.

As I noted at the end of the thread I did when CPP launched A Larger Us, all of us now own this challenge. None of this is going to be solved for us by a few expert practitioners. Because the truth is, all of us already *are* practitioners of collective psychology – whether consciously or otherwise.

So we’d better get good at it.

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