The virtue to survive

Nisha Pushpararajah with a personal perspective grounded in collectivism.

The idea that we all share commonalities in the midst of the Corona (COVID-19) pandemic came from an article I read by Scott Berinato, a Senior Editor at Harvard Business ReviewThe Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief. The sense that we are all experiencing collective loss and grief is quite ordinary, given the circumstances.

Collectivism as a cultural phenomenon has been considered as a key influence on how we think and behave (Oyserman & Lee, 2008) – that as individuals, we are primed into thinking and behaving how others think and behave based on the influences around us. Indeed, the rise of media coverage on COVID-19 and its impact, coupled with the sharing of feelings and experiences through social media and other platforms, suggests that there are functionally universal cultural themes related to collective stress and collective trauma. Using the lens of collectivism, we can begin to understand why there is this fear and panic related to economic downfall, social isolation, missing out, running out of supplies and food and dying of the virus. These threats to our social order make surviving and managing anxiety exceptionally hard and in this digital age; it can be harder to escape these subtle environmental cues.

However, as highlighted by Scott Berinato, this is a temporary state and we should treat it as so. This moral panic can inevitably lead to moral fatigue, but we can influence each other in positive ways. With this, comes the rise of niche good news stories, inspirational quotes, interesting self-isolation activities and the use of mobile phone applications such as House Party and Zoom. Such environmental cues indicate that collectively, we strive for one goal, which is to preserve our sanity and position within a perceived disorganised and confused social order. We also strive to preserve our emotional and physical safety in the best way we can and in light of the restrictions we face – a way that will, at the very least, give us the virtue to survive.

Psychological stage theories and models argue that we are all survivors of a subjective emotional response, which manifest in mental, physical or social ways (Bowlby, 1961; Freud, 1917; Kübler-Ross, 1969). An individual must endure several phases before coming to accept what is happening to them – making sense of the disorganisation and the despair, and eventually achieving a sense of inner and outer peace.

That said, it could be regarded that collective survival may only be achieved if we have the cultural mindset to do so (see for example, honour as a cultural mindset; Novin & Oyserman, 2016). Whilst governmental responses to COVID-19 have varied across nations, the attributes of those at the receiving end may be functionally universal. However, what is certain is that strictness, grounding and risk-taking come in many forms and dependent on the culture in which it is shaped – it is context-sensitive and collectivist. As such, it is reasonable to assume that public responses to COVID-19 is dependent on the collectivist nature of one’s society, thus one’s culture. There does exist cross-societal differences in the chronic stimulation of certain mindsets and how these are practiced (Oyserman, 2011), meaning that we may begin to see differences in the public’s response to COVID-19 – the determinant being, cultural/collectivist mindset.

I suppose that only time will tell as to whether we can be primed to endorse the collective survival techniques that have emerged as a result of the pandemic. Subjective emotional responses like stress may have the capacity to lure us into subjective trauma. However, we can survive this, a goal we collectively strive to reach, as a nation and globally.

- Nisha Pushpararajah is a newly qualified registered Forensic Psychologist.

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Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. In A. Freud, A. Strachey, & A. Tyson (Eds.), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV (1914-1916): On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement, Papers on Metapsychology and Other Works (pp. 237-258). London: The Hogarth Press.
Kübler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. London: Tavistock.
Novin, S., & Oyserman, D. (2016). Honor as cultural mindset: Activated honor mindset affects subsequent judgment and attention in mindset-congruent ways. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(1921), 1-14.
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Oyserman, D., & Lee, S. W. S. (2008). Does culture influence what and how we think? Effects of priming individualism and collectivism. Psychological Bulletin, 134 (2), 311-342.

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