For psychology teachers everywhere—many with students displaced to their homes—the COVID-19 pandemic’s dark clouds offer a potential silver lining: some teachable moments. In so many ways, we are experiencing social psychology writ large, with so much to study.
Here’s my initial list of opportunities for online and in-class discussion of social dynamics in action.
Concept: The need to belong. We humans are social animals. We live and find safety in groups. We flourish and find happiness when connected in close, supportive relationships. Separation (or, worse, ostracism) triggers pain.
1. Are there ways in which the pandemic thwarts our need to belong?
Possible answers: by social distancing, cancelled communal gatherings (sports, parties, worship), the isolation of off-site learning and work, diminished travel to be with loved ones or for shared experiences.
2. If so, might the isolation increase risk of physical or mental health problems?
Possible answers: Isolation may exacerbate loneliness and depression, both of which can make people vulnerable to ill-health and, ironically, compromised immune functioning. [P.S. My colleague Jean Twenge offers more on this here.]
3. Are there ways we can nevertheless satisfy our need to belong?
Possible answers: online meetings through video conferencing; connecting through social media (Facebook’s mission: “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”); Facetime conversations; acts of caring to those in need or at-risk; love-bombing friends and family with messages and emails. Perhaps physical distancing needn't correspond with social distancing?
Concept: The social responsibility norm. Norms are social expectations for desirable behavior. The social responsibility norm is the expectation that we help those in need.
Discussion question: Have you observed or read examples of the social responsibility norm in operation during the current crisis?
Possible answers: People doing grocery runs for neighbors at risk; friends reminding peers “even if you aren’t at risk for serious illness, you need to protect yourself so older and at-risk folks you meet aren’t imperiled and hospitals overwhelmed.”
Concept: The availability heuristic’s influence on our fears. Heuristics are thinking shortcuts. The availability heuristic is our automatic tendency to estimate the likelihood of an event by how readily it comes to mind (how available it is in memory). Vivid media images of disasters can therefore lead us to fear things that kill people in bunches (such as plane crashes, when auto travel is vastly more dangerous).
Discussion question: Although it’s too early to know the coronavirus’ lethality (because we don’t yet know how many people have undiagnosed infections), have you witnessed examples of some panicked people fearing it too much? And of others, by failing to appreciate its exponential future spread, fearing it too little?
Discussion question: Do you agree with statistician-writer Nate Silver’s speculation that these two tendencies (fearing too much and fearing too little) might balance each other?
Concept: Selective exposure to information. Selective exposure is the human tendency to prefer and seek information and news feeds that affirm rather than challenge our preexisting views.
Discussion question: A recent survey (replicated by NPR/Marist) found that 58 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Democrats believed “the threat of coronavirus has been exaggerated.” Might selective information exposure explain this difference? If so, how?
Discussion question: Are you selectively exposing yourself solely to news and social media sources that affirm rather than challenge your views?
Concept: Group polarization. In experiments, discussion among like-minded people tends to enhance their preexisting views.
Discussion question: In times of crisis, does the internet enable the segregation of like-minded people clustered in echo chambers, progressives with progressives, and conservatives with conservatives—each group sharing links to sites that affirm their own views?
Discussion question: Does this polarization describe you and your friends?
Discussion question: Are there other ways in which you engage views other than your own?
Concept: Individualism vs. collectivism. Cultures vary in the extent to which they prioritize “me” or “we”—personal (my) goals and identity or group (our) goals and identity.
Discussion question: Have you observed examples of individualism or collectivism in response to health or government guidelines for controlling the spread of the virus?
Possible answers: Individualism—objecting to limits on one’s activities—“I’m fine and not at risk, so why shouldn’t I be able to party with my friends?” Collectivism: “We’re responsible for each other and could pass the virus on to an older person or someone with an underlying condition.”
Discussion question: Does China’s collectivism help explain its plummeting rate of new COVID-19 cases—from several thousand per day during February to just 27 on March 15?
Possible answer: Students may note that China is more collectivist—more “we” focused—but also more autocratic.
Concept: The motivating power of social perceptions. Stock market drops and bank runs occur when people perceive that others will be selling their holdings or withdrawing their money, causing collapse. People who may not think conditions are terrible may create a downturn by fearing that others think so.
Discussion question: Has your community experienced a similar run on goods—by people who may not fear a lack of goods, but worry that others do, and will empty shelves?
Concept: Terror-Management. Some 300 studies explore the effects of reminding people of their mortality. “Death anxiety” provokes varied defenses, which range from aggression toward rivals to shoring up self-esteem to prioritizing close relationships to embracing worldviews and faith that remind us of life’s meaning.
Discussion question: Have you observed any examples of people’s heightened death anxiety and their adaptive responses to such?
Concept: The unifying power of a common enemy and a superordinate goal. When diverse people experience a shared threat—a common enemy, a natural disaster, a mean boss—they often feel a kinship, as many Americans did after 9/11. Moreover, working cooperatively toward a shared (“superordinate”) goal can transform distant or conflicting people into friends.
Discussion question: Have you seen instances when the shared threat of a pandemic virus helped someone appreciate our common humanity?
Discussion question: Have you seen instances when the awareness of the virus made you or a loved one more suspicious of others—whose mere cough might make them seem like an external threat?
For psychological science (the most fascinating science, methinks), the world around us is a living laboratory in which we observe powerful social forces at work in others . . . and in ourselves.
(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)