How will you help to sustain collective efficacy?
The year 2020 has taught us that tackling our problems collectively is the way to get through the pandemic. Many of us have supported our communities by delivering food, prescriptions and checking in on our neighbours. We have played our part and limited our freedom by staying at home. As psychologists, many of us are putting our efforts into Covid-19 related research and practice. A sense of collective efficacy is one unanticipated positive consequence of the pandemic; a construct that encourages better life satisfaction (Roos et al., 2013). When considering how the world will be post-pandemic, it would be uplifting if collective efficacy remained. How can we sustain this collective efficacy and action into 2021 and beyond?
Albert Bandura coined the term collective efficacy – a group's shared belief in its capability to organise and execute actions required to achieve goals. A group’s achievement is not only a product of its skills and knowledge, but also the group’s dynamic and interaction. Perceived collective efficacy is embedded in the group, but behaviour operates at the individual level which is why people need a shared belief to generate collective action to achieve the solution. As Bandura says:
“People’s beliefs in collective efficacy influence the futures they seek to achieve through collective action, how well they use their resources, how much effort they put into their group endeavours, their persistence when collective efforts fail to produce quick results or confront influential opposition, and their vulnerability to the discouragement that can beset people taking on tough social problems”. (p76)
We know that collective efficacy is stronger in collectivist cultures and that research has found that increased collective efficacy is associated with long lasting health improvement. Prost and colleagues (2013) found that community participatory learning and action groups dramatically improved maternal and child health outcomes in in India, Malawi, Nepal and Bangladesh. It is thought that one psychological mechanism causing the positive health outcomes was the creation of collective action. Gram and colleagues (2020) have developed a new scale to measure collective action of community support groups in India. Roos and colleagues in South Africa (2013) suggest that collective efficacy might be a more relevant construct in collectivistic contexts than self-efficacy, as these sorts of communities often have shared problems and resolve issues together for the good of the group.
What is interesting is that collective efficacy may have become a more relevant measure of efficacy during the pandemic in individualist cultures such as the UK. As we have seen, the pandemic is a shared experience of collective vulnerability and our risk can only be reduced by a collective and consistent response across society. A recent overview of social and behavioural science literature in response to Covid-19 described this time as a period when individual and collective interest are aligned (Van Bavel et al., 2020). Authors described the need for group cooperation to achieve common goals and promote social enforcement of social distancing. The BPS Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce (2020) recommended that all communications about managing the pandemic take a collective stance, encouraging people start to think less about “I” and more about what “We” can do for the greater good.
What these documents don’t say is that through this, individuals develop a shared, social identity. But what happens when the need for collective action recedes? Does our sense of shared social identity also fade? And if so, how do we sustain our sense of collective efficacy?
Like many other psychologists, I have personally and professionally been part of the collective response to Covid-19. The lessons learnt from Covid-19 about collective efficacy and action are powerful and should be remembered. In March 2020, over 115 health psychologists became members of the Health Psychology Exchange via Twitter, led by Prof Jo Hart, and Drs Lucie Byrne Davis and Angel Chater. They hosted structured meetings to bring together academic and practitioner psychologists from early, mid and senior career stages. This collaboration drew on attendees’ knowledge, skills and experience, all aimed to target support for health and social care systems in response to Covid-19. This group of friends and strangers conducted rapid evidence synthesises and supported the delivery of psychological interventions.
This is just one example of how Covid-19 bought us together in an effort towards a shared goal. I would like to think that this may change the way our discipline operates in the future, encouraging us to move away from working in parallel towards working together. Thinking six months ahead and beyond, I trust the Health Psychology Exchange and other groups like this sustain their collective efficacy and shared vision, and in so accelerating the evolution of psychological evidence and translation of guidance into practice. Psychology thus becomes more than the sum of its parts.
And what will happen to the community spirit that was seen in response to Covid-19? Many local community volunteer groups have been formed to help the most vulnerable in this period. One such national movement is Mutual Aid, structured as a non-hierarchical organisation based on the principle that all members are equal. It is distinct from a charity or NGO as it promotes solidarity by removing power dynamics commonly adapted by the voluntary sector, which can create inequality between those who help and those who are being helped. By removing power dynamics in this way, Mutual Aid creates collective efficacy from the bottom-up where community members both decide and act on a shared common goal. How can we sustain this collective model in post-pandemic communities?
Having seen the power of collective efficacy and action, I would like to think that we are now equipped with the skills and experience to take this forward into the future. I hope that the lessons learnt about the value of collective efficacy and shared goals can be applied to other pre-existing societal issues including climate change, and support for people homeless and seeking refuge and asylum. Looking forward, how can we create cultures and goals that utilise collective efficacy to benefit wider society?
As psychologists, we are instrumental to sustaining collective efficacy. We could support the formation of social norms delivered by public messaging and social networks (Van Bavel et al., 2020). We can enhance community participation through building and nurturing meaningful relationships with and between communities, authorities and organisations over time (Marston et al., 2020). Finally, a collective efficacy centred mentality could be adopted and modelled by psychologists to professional and social networks.
How will you help to sustain collective efficacy?
Daniella Watson MSc MBPsS
Senior Research Assistant & PhD student & Health Psychologist Trainee
Global Health Research Institute
Human Development and Health Academic Unit
Faculty of Medicine (IDS D008)
University of Southampton
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