Collective Behavior in the Time of COVID-19

Introduction to Section D of Together Apart

We are frequently told that COVID-19 is the greatest challenge of our generation, and perhaps the largest global crisis since World War II. So, what do we know about how people behave in crises? And how can we apply that understanding to manage the current pandemic? The traditional answer draws on the notion that people are psychologically fragile at the best of times, and so threat and fear make things worse. This reasoning suggests that when you add collective psychology into the mix (either because we are actually in a crowd or because we see each other as all in the same boat) we simply fall apart. Panic turns a crisis into a disaster.

In order to address the issues surrounding COVID-19 and its collateral effects, Social Science Space is presenting a series of articles drawn from the new book Together Apart: the Psychology of COVID-19. You can click to each article in this section on collective behavior using the links below. To download an uncorrected proof version of the book, click here.

Despite the continuing popularity of this ‘panic perspective’, the evidence shows that, while people certainly can act selfishly and dysfunctionally in crises, more often they come together and support each other. An emergent collective psychology, far from being the villain of the piece, is what makes this possible. Living through the COVID-19 crisis is an experience we all have in common, and this has the potential to create a sense of shared identity which is the basis for mutual concern, mutual support, and resilience. In many ways, collective psychology is our greatest asset for dealing with a crisis.

It is critical for those dealing with the pandemic to appreciate the importance of this and to understand how to harness the benefits of collective psychology. This is true when it comes to fostering shared identity and solidarity not only amongst the public, but also between the public and authorities. Get it right and the rewards are considerable; not least because those authorities who treat the public as part of a common group are better able to guide the public to safety in a crisis. Get it wrong, however, and the costs are momentous. Error in this area not only creates tension between the public and the authorities, but also opens up divisions within communities and creates collective disorder.

The articles below contain critical lessons for those managing the pandemic, because these factors determine not only how well we will deal with the crisis, but also what sort of society will emerge from it.


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Introduction to Collective Behaviour

Crowds | Fergus Neville and Stephen D. Reicher
An outline of both traditional and contemporary models of collective behaviour.

Emergencies and disasters | John Drury and Selin Tekin Guven
How people behave in crises, mapping the emergence of widespread solidarity

Solidarity | Evangelos Ntontis and Carolina Rocha
Exploring the psychological underpinning of such solidarity, providing evidence for the critical role of shared social identity.

Managing crowds in crises | Holly Carter, Dale Weston and Richard Amlôt
Looking at emergency services and their relation with the public

Social order and disorder | Clifford Stott and Matt Radburn
Examining the nature of police–public encounters in determining whether the public stay united and orderly

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Jolanda Jetten, Stephen Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam, and Tegan Cruwys

Jolanda Jetten is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Stephen Reicher is a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews. S. Alexander Haslam is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Tegan Cruwys is a researcher in the College of Health & Medicine at Australian National University. All are authors of Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19.

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