Psychology ‘can help policymakers tap wisdom of crowds’ during crisis

UK government adviser Stephen Reicher argues that the discipline, which often comes under fire, can help in articulating ‘between the social and the individual’

June 12, 2020

Psychologists can help identify the essential “levers” governments need to address the coronavirus crisis, argued Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, who has been advising the Scottish and UK governments during the pandemic.

As a member of both the Scottish Government COVID-19 Advisory Group and the UK-wide Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Behaviours (SPI-B), which provides input to the crucial UK government Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, Professor Reicher has been able to feed into public decision-making. But he has also joined forces with colleagues Jolanda Jetten, S. Alexander Haslam and Tegan Cruwys (all based in Australian institutions) and a wider team to distill their central ideas into a single volume: Together Apart: The Psychology of Covid-19 (SAGE Publishing). The proof version can be downloaded for free.

The book calls for a rejection of the “longstanding and influential tradition which views people as mentally frail, beset by biases, and unable to deal with uncertainty, complexity or stress” – and so needing to be “shielded from harsh truths, and shepherded by a paternalistic government”. On concrete issues such as wearing masks, it cites evidence that “If you wear them properly and dispose of them carefully, they probably have a modestly positive effect”, but adds that the way people actually wear them “may do more harm than good”. So, as well as the medical data, we need extensive “behavioural investigation” by psychologists and studies of “all the impacts of mask wearing that go beyond the physical impact of the mask”. 

Together Apart also incorporates a research project, begun in March this year, which collected data from 1,700 people in order to study “the psychology of those who mistrust the official government advice on Covid-19”.

There is a long tradition of “crowd psychology”, Professor Reicher said, which “sees the group as problematic”, as something that “undermines us at a cognitive and moral level”. This can be traced back to “the fears of the elite [during] the rise of industrial and mass society in the 19th century”, but it remained “alive in media and popular representations of crowds – in talk about ‘mad mobs’ and the notion that when people get together they behave in mindless and emotional ways”.

All this, in Professor Reicher’s view, was fundamentally wrong. The development of what is known as social identity theory since the 1970s had made it clear that “collective psychology is our greatest asset: we will get through things together in collective ways, at the level of social identity rather than individual interests”. Studies of behaviour during the coronavirus had confirmed that “people have been staying at home, even when they have been suffering considerably, because they were acting for the good of the community”, he added.

Academic psychology has recently faced criticism that its findings are hard to replicate and often based on small-scale experiments using Western (and generally American) students as subjects. So is it not opportunistic for psychologists to claim they can help policymakers at a time of crisis?

For the past two decades, Professor Reicher replied, he and his colleague John Drury, professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex, had been producing research on disasters, including the London bombings, floods and earthquakes, which challenges “the notion of panic, the idea of irrational collective behaviour in a disaster...Most of the literature shows that people don’t just behave emotionally, and in an uncontrolled and excessive way. People begin to cohere and help each other and even help strangers.”

In helping policymakers tackle the coronavirus, therefore, psychologists could now draw on “a very strong evidence base and probably tens of thousands of publications”.

One aspect of serving on the SPI-B advisory group, Professor Reicher went on, was that different kinds of social scientist could learn from each other, with psychology as “the linchpin which articulates between the social and the individual”. The social identity approach, he believed, has helped economists rethink the whole notion of self-interest and see that “acting for others is not an abnegation or denial of the self [but] comes from an extension of the self”.

Yet Professor Reicher acknowledged that psychologists had sometimes been hubristic and should flag up for policymakers “the variables which are critical in terms of achieving something, the levers we want to use” rather than giving firm predictions.

“Sometimes we know and understand the processes but do not know how to effect those processes,” he reflected. “People actively interpret the messages you give them. You are dealing with the complexity and slipperiness of sense-making and trying to alter that.”

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