Tales of the unexpected

Sue Shea and Robin Wynyard on the 'day after', and whether major psychological theories are fit for purpose in such unusual times.

In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger and colleagues observed a group of cult members who believed that the world would end with cataclysmic floods on 21 December. The cult members became isolated, locking themselves away until the moment would come when they expected to be rescued by a UFO, whilst they awaited information from their perceived superiors (spacemen). 

Festinger became interested in what would happen the ‘day after’, i.e. 22 December. The cult had believed that the world would end, but this was met with contradictory beliefs that the world would continue – a conflict of beliefs known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger, 1957). As such, the group needed to resolve this conflict, which was achieved by adopting a third belief in that they had in fact saved the world.  

The world that we are currently experiencing reflects an ‘unexpected’ global crisis which we could not have anticipated. Thus, unlike the above cult who ‘expected’ a major catastrophe which did not happen, we are living through an ‘unexpected’ event which did happen. Furthermore, whilst members of the cult ‘chose’ to exist in isolation and to lock themselves away, the majority of us are obeying current ‘instructions’ to socially isolate and abide by the lockdown measures.

In the example above, the cult identified a way to avoid the ‘cognitive dissonance’ that they may have experienced, in order to explain and deal with their situation. But is it possible for us to adopt a similar position?

One possibility is to adopt the ‘we are all in this together’ stance, and to of course be acutely aware that the current lockdown and social distancing measures are essential. 

However, it may be questionable how long some people can continue with such measures, especially those who are alone and perhaps vulnerable to developing mental health conditions.

This leads us to the question the extent to which certain psychosocial theories can currently be applied, given the severity of this unexpected event. For example, Antonovsky’s concept of ‘sense of coherence’ (1987) relates to having a sense of control based on our perceptions of comprehensibility, manageability, and meaningfulness in life. Ajzen’s  ‘theory of planned behaviour’ (1991) states that behaviour and intention to behave is guided by attitude, subjective norms and perceived control. Thus, perception of control features in both of the above.  

Likewise, theories relating to problem solving and overcoming negative thoughts may seem out of reach for some people (particularly those who are vulnerable, who are affected economically, or who experience mental health problems). So whilst we may indeed adopt the ‘all in it together’ stance, individual circumstances may vary greatly, and may not therefore be explained or addressed by certain psychosocial theories.     

In a recent interview with psychologist Stuart Ritchie, he expresses doubts over the role of psychology as part of a first response during these times. Issues are also raised concerning potential misinformation provided by some psychologists with regard to perceived risk, suggesting that some are playing down the severity of the problem and underestimating the risk. It is possible that this is a result of psychology perhaps being too dependent on probability and the ‘expected’, rather than considering the ‘unexpected’.

Using the concept of the ‘day after’ to metaphorically describe the ‘new normal’, we suggest that consideration may need to be given to the adaptation or revision of certain theories to take into account the fact that the ‘unexpected’ can happen, and that there are circumstances where the concept of ‘control’ is simply not within our reach. On a daily basis, we await further information from the authorities, in a similar fashion to the 1950’s cult awaiting information from their perceived superiors, and at the present time we cannot be certain when the ‘day after’ will occur, or what the ‘new normal’ may look like. So perhaps this is a reminder that we need to be prepared for the ‘unexpected’, which could prove useful in terms of psychology being firmly integrated into future first response scenarios. 

In the meantime, as suggested by Horton (2020), Covid-19 represents a ‘biographical’ event in addition to a ‘biological’ challenge, affecting the lives of millions of people. As such, although Covid-19 may be considered a global phenomenon, its impact on the individual may be far ranging. Psychology could play a crucial role here, but may need to be adapted to meet such challenges. 

Sue Shea, BSc (Hons), MSc, MBPsS

Robin Wynyard, MA, PGCE, PhD

King's College London

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber