Jasmine Halki /Flickr

From Me to We: in an Emergency, Collectivise to Survive

How can the response to the Covid-19 outbreak be more effective? There are concerns about both over-reaction (so-called ‘panic buying’) and under-reaction (seemingly irrational complacency over compliance with distancing and isolation measures). But the real choice we face is not between rationality and irrationality, but between individualism and collectivisation. 

The role of the collective in survival has been demonstrated many times in research on emergency evacuations. On 9/11, those escaping the World Trade Center spontaneously coordinated their movements by walking at the same speed as so that everyone could evacuate down all the flights of stairs more efficiently. And when people were trapped in the bombed London underground trains on 7 July 2005, people came together to remove train doors so they could escape. In both cases, shifting from the ‘me’ to the ‘we’ helped the majority survive.

Conversely, when people all individually compete for the emergency exit instead of queuing, that’s when the exit gets blocked. When everyone acts as an individual in a collective situation, it’s a disaster.

So it is with the response to the Covid-19 outbreak. A fundamental way to slow or even stop the spread of the virus is ‘social distancing’. This was only explicitly promoted by the UK government on 16 March, and comprehensive measures to stop mixing were only implemented on 20 March.

Why wasn’t distancing promoted earlier? The notion of ‘fatigue’ was offered as one explanation for not introducing the more ‘demanding’ measures ‘too early’. The assumption here is that people are only motivated by personal self-interest, that they will become ‘bored’.

But we know that people don’t simply act as individuals. They are also willing to make great sacrifices for collective causes – even at personal danger to themselves. Think of wars, revolutions, protests – or, again, many emergencies and disasters where people sometimes take risks to help strangers.

At a more mundane level, when overcoming harsh conditions affirms your collective identity and assures your acceptance in a group, people can actually relish the hardship. Ask the hundreds of thousands dancing in the Glastonbury mud. Ask any runner. Feeling – and surmounting – the burn is what keeps you going rather than what stops you.

But most importantly, the real thing that stops people complying with social distancing measures are material rather than psychological difficulties: can you afford to stay at home, feed your family, keep your flat heated and lit? Instead of emphasizing the collective interest, or turning to the structural and financial supports that could be put in place to make it possible for people to stay at home, the expected ‘decay’ in adherence has been psychologized and individualized.

As well as the delay in promoting social distancing, individualism lies at the root of the problems of adherence that we have seen during the response to Covid-19 so far. The message some people are picking up is about the risk to themselves personally. This allows them to discount the risk, especially if they consider themselves young and healthy. They say, “I have the right to take risks with my own health”, “I’m going to get it anyway” or “It won’t happen to me” and “I still want to carry on with my personal lifestyle”.

If a government thinks an individualistic strategy is the only way to harness our psychology, then when that fails the only alternative left is coercion. But we know from history the perils of coercion in these kinds of cases.

In the Indian plague pandemic of 1896-98, the authorities took ‘drastic action’, including summary powers. This led to fear and flight among the population at the oppressive measures themselves (rather than against the plague), as well as a movement against the measures. The authorities referred to this public response as ‘panic’. But the failure of public adherence was a failure of trust, not one of mass irrationality. This is quite clear from the solutions to the ‘panic’: locally managed hospitals, moving away from coercion and towards persuasion in the manuals, use of local and ‘natural’ leaders, and relying instead on public cooperation.

The real alternative to individualism is to frame the threat of Covid-19 in collective terms. Yes, repeated and thorough handwashing is inconvenient for you personally, but you’re doing it for us – for your neighbours, family, friends, community. And new evidence shows that appealing to collective rather than individual interests is more effective in getting people to adhere to hygiene and social distancing measures, but this depends upon getting people to see themselves in collective terms.

When adherence is framed in terms of the collective interests and norms, then failure in others to adhere is understood as an attack on the community. This invokes collective self-regulation in the form of collective pressure, disapproval and so on. Once the norm is shared across a community – is collective – then there is the collective power to enforce it, which is more efficient and effective than any attempt at state coercion.

Moreover, the development of collective identity does not just mitigate against damaging behaviours, it also leads to positive actions: a sense of care and concern for others, the development of street and community level organisation to support each other and support the vulnerable. And, as the infection spreads, the state will not be able to provide care for all those in need. Mutual aid is the best resource we have to get through coronavirus. And so promoting a sense of ‘we-ness’ in the public is crucial to the way we get through this crisis.

To some extent, this lesson is being learnt. Boris Johnson and the Queen now tell us “we are all in this together”. But ‘we-ness’ is not just a matter of words. Words won’t bring us together unless they are accompanied by material measures which make it equally practical for all of us to stay at home and self-isolate, to access medical care, and to look after children home from school. A rhetoric of unity accompanied by a reality of division will only increase social cleavages, ramp up social tensions and make us less able to deal with coronavirus.

But if rhetoric and reality do come together, if we do create a sense of inclusive shared identity, and if we do work with rather than against each other, then we become far more resilient in the face of coronavirus.

True, the term ‘resilience’ is much over-used. It is also usually conceptualized too individualistically, and is often profoundly ideological in its use (‘Britain can take it’ – so the state can leave you to look after yourself). But the notion of ‘collective resilience’ is useful in capturing how collectivisation allows those facing an emergency to express and expect solidarity and cohesion, and thereby to coordinate and create collective sources of support.

In the fight against coronavirus, as in so many fights, it is our unity that is our strength.

John Drury is a professor of social psychology at the University of Sussex.

Stephen Reicher is a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews.

Clifford Stott is a professor of social psychology at Keele University.

Published 22nd March 2020

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