What has the pandemic taught us about human nature?

Professor Stephen Reicher

The 18 months of the Covid pandemic have taught us much about the importance of understanding behaviour and the problems of getting it wrong. I shall point to three key messages. The first is that behaviour matters at a societal and policy level as well as an individual level. The second is that behaviour is not all about psychology. The third is that, insofar as psychology is relevant, we need to reassess our understanding of the human subject and – more specifically, replace the dominant conception (within Government at least – and some Governments more than others) of persons as fragile rationialsts with an understanding of ourselves as socially resilient subjects. A primary responsibility of Government, then – especially in a crisis – is to scaffold our sense of connection and commonality with others. Failure to understand this can lead to actions which actively divide and atomise us and hence which weaken our ability to confront the crisis.

Stephen Reicher is Wardlaw Professor of Psychology, University of St. Andrews and Vice-President, Royal Society of Edinburgh. He is a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science and a leading authority on crowd psychology.

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