The role of collective psychology in exiting COVID-19

A conversation with political psychology expert Alex Evans

The Global Insight team
06 May 2020
Expert Q&A  |  7 minute read

How should we plan for the world after COVID-19? How will the pandemic alter the intergenerational divide? And what role can young people play in crafting a positive exit from this crisis? The Global Insight team invited Alex Evans, founder of the Collective Psychology Project, to talk to us about these and other issues related to the pandemic. In the Q&A below, our partnership lead Yoonie Choi followed up with Alex on some of the most interesting aspects of our discussion. The transcript has been edited for length and brevity.

Can you briefly explain the core thesis of the Collective Psychology project 

Alex Evans: The core idea of the project is that there are feedback loops between our individual states of mind and the state of the world. For example, depression is a state of mind, but, in many cases, it reflects the state of the world — the way we live today. Equally, the state of the world reflects the state of our minds — the environment is being damaged by unsustainable consumption that has its roots in part in our need to shop to soothe inner issues like boredom, loneliness or lack of self-worth.

How can this help us understand the challenge we face in overcoming COVID-19? 

AE: We can only solve our global challenges — from climate change to COVID-19 — if we share a sense of common identity and purpose. We need to see ourselves in our own minds as part of a larger us rather than them-and-us. For example, with the pandemic, each of us faces decisions every day about whether we're going to respect social distancing or just think in terms of an atomized “I” — “Well, I'm young enough that if I catch it, the symptoms won't be that bad. Maybe I'll take the risk.” It’s the same with governments: When you see heads of government blaming coronavirus on other countries, that's an example of them-and-us thinking, rather than larger us thinking. Our project aims to use psychology to prompt more of us to see ourselves as part of this larger us

Family admires school poster
At New Winthorpes Primary School in St. John’s, Antigua, Gloria Cephas and two of her children, Kedar, 10, and Khadalia, 7, stand before a poster the children helped create, which reads “It takes you and me to save our sea” (November 2019).

How can the idea of "layers of change" help us understand the challenges policymakers face with COVID-19 and its aftermath?  

AE: Some changes unfold very quickly, others take years and years, and policymakers have to respond accordingly. We saw this with the financial crisis, and we’re also seeing it now with the pandemic. COVID-19 has three layers of change unfolding at different speeds. We have the immediate public health emergency, which is probably going to play out over two years or more until we have a vaccine that works. Then we have an economic crisis, which again will take probably five years to play out. Longer term, we have a third layer of polarization and insecurity, which may take more than a generation to play out fully.  

We’re worried that, as with the financial crisis, we see policymakers focusing much more on the shorter-term stuff again. We've seen much less action at that third level, particularly around issues about maintaining public trust and confidence in governmental responses.

How can we ensure that policymakers pay sufficient attention to the long-term? 

AE: Governments need to track public opinion and public trust much more closely. Maintaining public trust is an absolutely essential part of meeting this emergency, and governments can't do that without really good data on public attitudes and public trust.   

Governments also need to invest in strategic foresight. In other words, how do we rebuild collective action out of this emergency and make sure we don't lose track of other big global issues like climate change? We have an extraordinary opportunity next year when the United Kingdom chairs the G-7, Italy chairs the G-20 and the two together co-chair COP 26. I don't recall ever seeing something as potentially positive as that on climate politics. But to seize the opportunity, you absolutely have to start building shared awareness and coalitions with other governments, developing that capacity to look ahead to be playing ahead of the game.

Teen takes school classes online
Xiaoyu participates in an online class, while her mother works remotely in Beijing, China, February 2020. In an effort to contain the outbreak of COVID-19, 180 million primary and secondary school students across China went online or switched on TV to attend class.

You’re particularly concerned that the pandemic will exacerbate the intergenerational divide. Why? 

AE: Young people have already had a really difficult decade. Now, with the pandemic, they’re being asked to take an enormous hit to their education and to their livelihoods to protect generations that are more at risk. This is an extraordinary act of intergenerational solidarity and selflessness. So, what my colleague David Steven and I emphasize is that a lot depends on what happens next. If young people’s gestures are acknowledged and reciprocated, then that could be the beginning of a renewal of the intergenerational covenant. If not, it could be a recipe for much worse political polarization.

What would recognising young people’s gestures look like?  

AE: Part of it is certainly about education and protecting young people's futures. Right now, 1.8 billion young people are out of school or university. We need a really serious global push to make sure that they don't miss out on a year or more of education. Secondly, we need action to protect incomes and livelihoods. It's essential that we have smart bailout packages that are targeted to make sure that young people don't lose out in terms of livelihoods.  

Longer term, there’s the question of who is going to pay the bill for these enormous bailouts. Young people already bore more of the brunt of austerity policies in the last decade, and that's part of why we've ended up in this polarized intergenerational situation. So, ensuring that the cost of the bailouts is equitably distributed is going to be really important. Secondly, there are still big long-term issues, such as climate change and mass extinction, which we know matter enormously to young people. It's essential that this is reflected in government priorities after this crisis as part of the repayment to young people.

You argue that people’s instincts during crises, such as natural disasters, are often ones of generosity and empathy (“tend-and-befriend”). How can that instinct be fostered, especially among young people?  

AE: What we often hear about in the immediate aftermath of disasters is a breakdown of law and order, looting, declarations of declare martial law. In fact, the lesson of disaster sociology is that very often we see tremendous selflessness and solidarity in the wake of disasters. Disasters represent a threat, and all of us have a choice in how to react to perceived threats. The one we always hear about is fight-or-flight but tend-and-befriend as an alternative response is much more useful because it's interested in the collective, not just in the individual. How can we promote tend-and-befriend? The three factors we pick out especially are what we call ABCs, which stands for agency, belonging and conscious self-awareness

We’ve actually seen a tend-and-befriend response to COVID-19 in so much of the world, with really positive, bottom-up, self-organized community responses. To sustain that, it's going to be important that we are mentally prepared for a disillusionment stage. This is the stage in the wake of a disaster when stresses start to mount up, be those financial worries or health issues or fatigue, lack of time, etc. That can lead to quite deep feelings of depression, disillusionment, abandonment and so forth. If we anticipate it and we're prepared to feel that kind of dip, then we're going to be much better placed to weather that stage.

Child distributes food medical information to elderly
Najah, 12, distributes a bread bag containing messages raising awareness of COVID-19, in the al-Zebdieh neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syrian Arab Republic, on 2 April 2020.

Social media can fuel disillusionment. How do we begin to solve this?

AE: Our individual mental and emotional states can be pretty contagious in an age of social media. The situation we're in now is fertile ground for things like fear, suspicion and panic — think of all the conspiracy theories flourishing on social media. So we feel pretty strongly that managing your own mental and emotional state (i.e. having conscious self-awareness) is the first step. The next step is about managing your effect on our collective central nervous system, which is social media. When you engage on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or whatever, just ask yourself, “Is the content I’m putting out there going to take people into fight-or-flight or tend-and-befriend?”  

Of course, if you put stuff on social media that's outraged, fearful or polarizing, it often gets way more likes or retweets than more unifying content. And, of course, the social media companies know that. Algorithms often push triggering content at us because it’s the most effective way of monetizing our attention through ad revenue and keeping us on their site. In the long term, we need to do all sorts of reforms to the tech sector to encourage more responsibility in how companies curate social media content. 

What can UNICEF do in that sense? 

AE: UNICEF has such great standing among young people. And, of course, it's a given that young people are the most sophisticated users of social media. If young people are given both the tools to use social media for good in a way that builds more of a sense of a larger us and also the ability to initiate those sorts of conversations with other people, that's a really powerful thing. We saw that happening in the equal-marriage movement, where young activists employed this extraordinary tactic of deep canvassing to initiate conversations in real-life on the doorstep of some of the most avowed opponents of equal marriage. You can imagine the beginnings of a new kind of activism based around not “my side winning” but on a much more empathetic approach of healing, persuasion and appealing to the common ground. I think UNICEF is extraordinarily well-placed to be part of that.

Photo of Alex Evans

Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, a senior fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, and climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office. @alexevansuk