‘Nothing could be worse than a return to normality’
This global pandemic began and spread because of human behaviours. How we behave now will determine how it ends. It’s an unsettling jolt to normality, which may be a dress rehearsal for a tumultuous 21st century:
‘…safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time. For we stand at a crucial moment in the history of our species. Fuelled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves – severing our entire future and everything we could become.’
(Oxford philosopher, Toby Ord, 2020)
Having enjoyed immense success as a species, we have become our own worst enemy.
Traditionally, the big things such as politics, religion, technology – and superheroes – have had the monopoly on salvation. Should psychologists now assume the mantle?
‘I believe that the world will either be saved by the psychologists or it won’t be saved at all. I think psychologists are the most important people living today. I think the fate of the human species and the future of the human species rest more upon their shoulders than upon any group of people now living.’
(Psychologist, Abraham Maslow, 1958)
Maslow believed that a better understanding of human nature could help us create a world that we can thrive in.
Addressing the American Psychological Association, the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ saw that psychology also held immense malign power:
‘In the last ten years the physicists have been extraordinarily noisy about the immense powers which…have come into the possession of man, [but] the psychologist can hardly do anything without realizing that for him the acquisition of knowledge opens up the most terrifying prospects of controlling what people do and how they think and how they behave and how they feel… the physicist’s pleas that what he discovers be used with humanity and be used wisely will seem rather trivial compared to those pleas which you will have to make and for which you will have to be responsible.’
(Physicist, Robert Oppenheimer, 1956)
And in recent years, those terrifying prospects are being realised:
‘It is crucial to remember that anger, joy, boredom and love are biological phenomena just like fever and a cough. The same technology that identifies coughs could also identify laughs. If corporations and governments start harvesting our biometric data en masse, they can get to know us far better than we know ourselves, and they can then not just predict our feelings but also manipulate our feelings and sell us anything they want – be it a product or a politician. Biometric monitoring would make Cambridge Analytica’s data hacking tactics look like something from the Stone Age.’
(Historian, Yuval Noah Harari, 2020)
The knowledge that psychologists are generating is applied in ways most of us would balk at (but not all… vice-chairman Rory Sutherland says, ‘I would rather be thought of as evil than useless’).
Perhaps now we should take the opportunity to rethink psychology for the tough times ahead:
‘A psychological Enlightenment would be a moral as well as an intellectual event. The psychology of the future can contribute more to the evolution of a just world than any psychology envisionable to the great scholars of the past whose views of their neighbours around planet Earth had not yet been opened up by modern communications technology. Such a psychology would start with the observation that there are no subhuman races or cultures among us. There are only people like ourselves who struggle to satisfy their needs and the needs of those they care about on an overcrowded, battered planet.’
(Psychologists, Bruce Alexander & Curtis Shelton, 2014)
Our subject’s best ideas could perhaps help humanity weather the storm:
‘In times of crisis, seemingly impossible ideas suddenly become possible. But whose ideas? Sensible, fair ones – designed to keep as many people as possible safe, secure, and healthy – or, predatory ideas, designed to further enrich the already unimaginably wealthy while leaving the most vulnerable further exposed?’
(Author & activist, Naomi Klein, 2020)
Elements in our government may think people can be solved like equations, but psychologists can play a vital role in directing better policy:
‘People are not planets or solar systems; there isn’t some secret underlying equation that, if we can only find it, holds the solution to all our problems. The real world is messy, full of uncertainty and impossible to predict. Applying maths to the real world requires much more than mathematicians. It requires people who understand human society and culture – people, in short, who actually understand people.’
(Mathematician & broadcaster, Hannah Fry, 2020)
Behavioural science has come to the fore in this crisis. Maybe it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship:
‘What I hope might happen is that just as the field of economics is suddenly catching on to the decades of psychological research on decision-making, that other fields might start to do the same and to realise that there’s all this research out there which could be put into practice. Expert panels and commissions wouldn’t dream of not including an economist. I’d like to see a day when they all have a psychologist too.’
(Broadcaster & psychologist, Claudia Hammond, 2009)
Impelled by catastrophe we can tunnel to new vistas for psychology:
‘We live trapped, between the churned-up and examined past and a future that waits for our work. As we crawl gropingly through a dark piece of the present, our eyes are blinded to the brightness of the timeless world above.’
(Psychologist, Anna Freud, 1920)
Shaken from routine, this is an opportunity for growth. Psychologists of all flavours know that we have more to offer the world than had hitherto been embraced.
‘Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.’
(Writer, Arundhati Roy, 2020)
- Dr Lee Rowland is is a chartered research psychologist and consultant. He is currently writing his first book, Psychofuture, about how psychology is responding to the social problems of the 21st century.
Artwork: by Nikoletta Koucharska
‘I am an art psychotherapist working in adult mental health. This digital drawing is a visual response to the current circumstances, reflecting on new ways of being ‘together’’ and caring for each other through isolation and social distancing.’
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