We are dynamite

Our editor Jon Sutton reports from Professor Stephen Reicher's opening keynote at the British Psychological Society's online 2020 Conference.

There is perhaps no psychologist we’ve featured in our pages more than Professor Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews), and I make no apologies for that. His keynote was a typical tour de force – if any psychologist has no need to apologise for not using PowerPoint, it’s Reicher – combining research and real people with the whiff of revolution. ‘What is happening leads us to reconceptualise one of the basic questions in psychology,’ he began, ‘the relationship between the collective and the individual, and between the individual and the state.’

Throughout the Covid-19 crisis, Reicher has advised government through SPI-B, the Scottish advisory group, and now Independent SAGE (‘which allows me a voice outside of the system’). His tweets make headline news the following day, and news bulletins have regularly featured his strident challenges to the government. Reicher was at pains, though, to point out that he wants the government to succeed. And for that, he has to exploit different spaces to hammer home his point that their assumptions are not only wrong, but actively dangerous. 

The dominant view within government – during this pandemic but also long before, Reicher argues – has been a sceptical and paternalistic notion of the public, rooted in fragility. People are psychologically weak, the thinking goes, in intellectual, cognitive and moral terms. ‘You wouldn’t have a half decent Hollywood disaster film without people running, screaming, clogging up the exits,’ Reicher said. ‘People are fragile, they over-react, turn a crisis into a tragedy.’ It’s a view that the state has a vested interest in sticking to: if people could self-organise, then we wouldn’t need government.

Actually, compliance with coronavirus measures has been remarkably high, with research led by Professor Bobby Duffy (King’s College London) suggesting that about 92 per cent of people are following the guidelines. It might seem like less, because as Reicher pointed out, ‘violation is always a better news story than compliance… footage of a shelf stacked with loo rolls is not a story’. And this compliance has come at considerable cost, with people suffering psychologically and materially. We have not been acting out of individual self interest. 

Reicher and colleagues predicted this. Professor John Drury’s work has shown that emergencies and crises inherently create a sense of shared identity, and that this sense of ‘groupness’ leads to support and communication. ‘When we act in terms of “we”, our self is extended.’ People die in emergencies not due to over-reaction, but under-reaction. They are not given the information, clarity about the risks, and the opportunity to do something about them. 

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen those problems of information and opportunity. Research shows that poor people are six times more likely to go out. ‘But there’s no difference in motivation,’ Reicher said. ‘They wanted to stay home, but to put food on the plate they had to go out.’

‘Yes but Steve, what about all those idiots on the beach?’, I have been known to ask. Patiently, he will explain that most people were socially distancing. In any case, are they fools or idiots, or simply responding to the implicit (and, I would argue, explicit) message of government… briefings stopped, open for business, ‘go to the beach’. ‘Poor old Chris Whitty pleaded with people – “don’t see it as back to normal”’, Reicher pointed out. ‘We are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and actions are a form of messaging.’ (‘This is a government that understands messaging’, Reicher said, leaving me to ponder darkly what lies beneath ‘stay alert’ and ‘Super Saturday.)

The reality, Reicher argued, is that the state cannot cope on its own. ‘Mutual aid has been as important as government intervention. And it critically involves a sense of community identity – people acting in terms of ‘us’.’ He reminded us of research on the ‘social cure’, the fact that groups are a prophylactic against mental and physical ill health. ‘Physical proximity has the potential to kill you, but so has social distance.’

The public, then, becomes the greatest asset. How do we nurture that? Leadership is absolutely critical: ‘there’s no use talking the talk of shared identity if the reality of experience is different.’ Particularly coming out of lockdown, equity becomes the critical issue. Although Reicher accepted that the government rhetoric had been ‘ok at times’ and the furlough scheme practically important, he feels that over time ‘the sense of shared identity has been undermined’. Interestingly, Reicher said that although trust in the government dropped by around a fifth after the Dominic Cummings incident, as would be predicted by Tom Tyler’s work on procedural justice, some of the people most angry at Cummings were more likely to comply with guidance. Cummings became a counter example. 

Where do we go from here, at this stage in the fight against the virus? ‘Treat people as a partner, listen, be open, be realistic, involve them in the production of policy,’ Reicher concluded. ‘If you believe that people can’t cope with the reality of hard times, it leads you to hide information away, to a banal optimism where you say everything is going to be ok.’ Instead, we need a ‘scaffolding state’, which organises, supports and resources communities to come together. 

Reicher also covered the research response, calling for the ‘resource, energy and effort’ which might build strong foundations for a Chief Behavioural Science Officer role in the future. But in the meantime, he warned, ‘hubris destroys everything. It’s important to be open and honest about the state of our evidence. Of course we don’t have direct evidence of the way this particular pandemic affects behaviour; but we do have the principles and the processes which can be applied to new situations.’ We must move beyond a series of ad hoc measures and towards a clear strategy, an ‘overall mental model of the pandemic’.  

Behaviour will undoubtedly be at the core of that model. ‘All the means we have of combating the pandemic have a central behavioural component,’ Reicher said, giving the example of ‘test, trace, isolate’. ‘Can you change the norm of showing grit and soldiering on, so that people recognise and report symptoms early on? Will we tell the authorities who our mates are, who we have been spending time with? What about getting people to isolate, at a time when others are coming out of lockdown?’ He added that there is a looming question of generational inequity: who will pay and who won’t pay? ‘The sense of alienation could grow and grow.’

Reicher chose to ‘finish on a brighter note’. Even he has been surprised by just how positive the overall behaviour of the public has been. They have led, the government has followed: demanding more stringent lockdown measures, more support, equity. ‘The resilience of the public has made up for the problem of leadership.’ But he insisted he is ‘not trying to sell you a Polyanna-ish view of “groups are always good”. ‘After 150 years of sneering at the collective, we need to get our heads around the “we” concept’. ‘We’ are dynamite: yes, we can do horribly destructive things, but we have the potential to be a remarkably powerful resource. Clear and honest information, backed up with resources which give us the opportunities we need to control the virus, will light the fuse.

- More reports from the conference will follow on here and in the September issue.

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