The psychology of disruptive events: finding a ‘new normal’

23 Apr 2020

Most of us have never experienced a disruptive event on the same scale as COVID-19. It has disrupted our economies, our patterns of living, and our social relationships. In Europe, the last pandemic occurred in 1918. Yet we have plenty of experience with different kinds of disruptive events and people’s psychological responses to them. Using research on extreme weather events, large-scale electricity blackouts, and industrial accidents, I argue that these events can help us to understand the ways in which people respond to COVID-19, and importantly, what happens next.

Normalising the situation

In northern Europe and Canada, winter storms mean that rural households are sometimes without electricity, heating or running water for days at a time. This severely disrupts daily practices such as cooking, cleaning, and communication (Ghanem et al., 2016; Heidenstrøm and Kvarnlöf, 2018Rinkinen, 2013Wethal, 2020). To cope, people marshal new materials, competences, and meanings in order to maintain daily routines. We’re seeing something similar with COVID-19 – witness the shift en masse to YouTube exercise videos, or the 67% growth in Zoom subscriptions. After Hurricane Katrina in the US, people improvised solutions in a way that removed some of the mystery surrounding the technological systems everyone relies on. By participating actively in the energy system, rather than simply remaining passive consumers, they became less vulnerable (Nye, 2010)Victims of disruptive events also tend to normalise them by reframing them in a positive way, for example; describing a blackout as a ‘cosy’ experience (Heidenstrøm and Kvarnlöf, 2018)For COVID-19, I have heard many normalisation, for instance; when people talk about how the disruption has made us more appreciative of nature, and human connection.

The importance of good communication

Of course, our current situation differs from blackouts and storms in important ways, and one barrier to ‘normalisation’ is its unfamiliarity. Psychological responses to disruptions are influenced by the familiarity of the threat, and microbiology is extremely unfamiliar to most of us. As such, the psychological response is more similar to the ‘dread’ which accompanies a nuclear or chemical accident, rather than a familiar disruption such as a storm (Slovic and Weber, 2002). Uncertainty about how long a disruption is likely to last also tends to exacerbate anxiety (Pasquier, 2011), and unfortunately, there is no way of knowing how long we will be in lockdown. However, one of the biggest causes of anxiety during most disruptions is lack of communication, because many crises disrupt electricity and therefore phones and the internet (Rubin and Rogers, 2019). In this respect, the ease with which we can stay updated on the situation and check up on friends and family should not be underappreciated. However, research on chemical spills demonstrates that responding positively and effectively to the information we receive requires underlying trust in the authorities themselves (Pearce et al., 2013). For this reason, messages delivered by NHS workers will generally be more effective than politicians’ speeches.

Disruptions tend to increase social altruism…

As a general rule, people tend to respond to disruptive events with incredible altruism and community spirit. Media reports often focus on isolated negative events such as crime and looting, which generates a dystopian vision of a society falling apart. Such a dark vision may well sell newspapers, but it is seldom rooted in reality (Nye, 2010)Disruption intensifies social cooperation and bonding (Wethal, 2020). For example, during the New York blackout in 2003, people chatted with strangers and enquired about the health of neighbours they’d never spoken to before (Yuill, 2004). During one of the most severe storms on record in Quebec in 1998, researchers found a reduction in crime and an increase in social altruism (Lemieux, 2014). Interestingly, with COVID-19, we’re seeing this even though people aren’t allowed to go near one another. Konvitz spoke of the ‘myth of terrible vulnerability’ – the tendency to depict catastrophes that are out of control, whilst ignoring the human ability to cope with hardships and to improvise solutions. Perhaps one of the positive outcomes of COVID-19 will be to increase awareness of this.

This is dependent on underlying social dynamics

Responses are dependent on the way the society is functioning at the time of the disruption. We can see this by comparing the 2003 New York blackout to one which occurred in 1977. In 2003, the US economy was booming, unemployment was low, and progressive policies had reduced inequality (Nye, 2010). In 1977 on the other hand, less than 24 hours of disruption led to looting and chaos, in a reflection of social tensions around class and race at the time (Sugarman, 1978). In this respect, perhaps we learn a lot about the underlying dynamics of society during disruptive events such as this. Certainly, widespread panic-buying in the initial stages of COVID-19 points to a highly consumerist, individualistic society. In some instances, the disruption has generated tribalism and even racism, amplifying the tribalism which has been a feature of politics over the past few years. I argue that the vast majority of responses to the ongoing disruption should give us hope for our society. This is a society in which 400,000 people offer to volunteer for the health service within one day; one in which 30,000 letters are sent from strangers to hospital patients; one in which people sing from their balconies to raise one another’s spirits. Creating a ‘new normal’ will require us to develop and strengthen these connections and this sense of community cohesion. It will require a lasting sense that this, not consumerism or individualism, is what it really means to be human.

Compounding existing vulnerabilities

It is important to emphasise that disruptive events compound existing vulnerabilities. In a blackout, the most severe impacts are felt by those who are already in fuel poverty (Rubin and Rogers, 2019), and in a hurricane, wealthy neighbourhoods often sustain less disruption and damage (Chakalian et al., 2019). The same is true for COVID-19: consider the difficulties faced by those without access to sanitation, or those with underlying respiratory complaints caused by cold, damp housing. Vulnerable groups will require targeted support; yet why should this only occur during a disruptive event? The virus has demonstrated that we are only as safe as the most vulnerable among us (Christiana Figueres), and it is therefore clear that support for the most vulnerable should be at the core of our everyday societal functioning, even after the disruption has passed. Experience of other types of disruption demonstrates that this approach improves societal resilience to crises.

Finding a ‘new normal’

The disruption caused by COVID-19 opens up space to reflect on what we want our future society to look like. Yet will the future society after the crisis has passed be any different? In other words, will we see the emergence of a ‘new normal’? After a blackout, everything returns quickly to the previous state, and there is not much evidence of persistent behaviour changes (Nye, 2010Rinkinen, 2013). Many of the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19 are socially and economically painful, and in China energy consumption rebounded quickly when restrictions were relaxed. Yet in cases of longer-term disruption to energy supplies, the energy savings often persist long after the event, as happened in Japan following the Fukushima nuclear disaster (Pasquier, 2011)The duration of the disruption matters – during a storm, we wait for it to (literally) blow over, but during a general energy crisis, new patterns of production and consumption emerge and persist. We do not yet know how long the lockdown will last, but as it drags on people may become used to travelling less, working less, and consuming less. In particular, certain modes of working might be rejected by employees; for instance, research shows that people often feel that their business flights are unnecessary and unpleasant (Gössling et al., 2019). Sustainable behaviour changes are often made during the ‘window of opportunity’ created by major life events such as moving house or having a baby (Schafer et al 2012). In a way, COVID-19 is a major life event on a societal scale: this long moment of reflexivity may represent the ultimate window of opportunity to alter our patterns of consumption.