Human behaviour: what scientists have learned about it from the pandemic

Several Covid-19 policies have shown “just how deeply some governments distrust their citizens. As if the virus was not enough, the public was portrayed as an additional part of the problem”. But, asks Prof. Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews, “is this an accurate view of human behaviour”?

The distrust is based on two forms of reductionism – describing something complex in terms of its fundamental constituents.

The first is limiting psychology to the characteristics – and more specifically the limitations – of individual minds. In this view the human psyche is inherently flawed, beset by biases that distort information. It is seen as incapable of dealing with complexity, probability and uncertainty – and tending to panic in a crisis.

In recent years, research has shown that the notion of people panicking in a crisis is something of a myth. People generally respond to crises in a measured and orderly way – they look after each other.

The key factor behind this behaviour is the emergence of a sense of shared identity. This extension of the self to include others helps us care for those around us and expect support from them. Resilience cannot be reduced to the qualities of individual people. It tends to be something that emerges in groups.

Another type of reductionism that governments adopt is “psychologism” – when you reduce the explanation of people’s behaviour to just psychology. But there are many other factors that shape what we do. In particular, we rely on information and practical means (not least money!) to decide what needs to be done – and to be able to do it.

If you reduce people to just psychology, it makes their actions entirely a consequence of individual choice.