'Resilience requires those in authority to be honest, open and consistent'
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 which 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, written in March just before the lockdown, he argued that the response to Covid would be more effective if a collective (as opposed to individualised) identity approach was adopted ('we're all in this together').
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) 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. 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. 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 and 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 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 pandemic.
- Dr Chris Cocking is a Principal Lecturer at the University of Brighton. This post was written for his blog 'Don't panic! Correcting myths about the crowd'.
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 48. 487-506.
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.
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
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber