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The psychological consequences of a ‘tier’ system approach to tackling coronavirus

People take part in a demonstration in Victoria Square, Birmingham, to protest against coronavirus lockdown restrictions. - Credit: PA

As London enters tier three of the coronavirus restrictions STEPHANIE WATSON analyses the impact on psychological thinking.

Following an increase in COVID-19 cases, London will be put into tier 3 on Wednesday. While restrictions are slightly looser than the first and second lockdowns, social interaction is being cut, triggering feelings of loneliness and isolation across the capital in the lead up to Christmas.

It is easy to feel like we’re back going around in circles, but this time round people are more prepared, savvier and informed about what restrictions entail. This raises questions around whether the psychological impact will be as severe as the experience of the first, or even the second lockdown and how compliant people will be with the rules this time around.

Psychology of uncertainty

At the start of the first lockdown we saw widespread panic buying in supermarkets as consumers surged to stock up on essential items. This was driven by uncertainty and a fear of the unknown. People simply did not know what to expect from lockdown and panic buying was a way for them to regain a sense of control by feeling prepared. However, people quickly learned that supermarkets could cope with demand and that panic buying was an irrational behaviour, and consequently went about shopping in a more orderly manner. Humans learn from experience and the March 2020 lockdown was the first time we had to quickly learn how to deal with an adjusted lockdown life.

Pandemic Fatigue

While people are more equipped to manage lockdowns and tier 3 physically and psychologically, many have had enough of long-term lockdown rules and routines, which is causing what the World Health Organisation is now calling ‘pandemic fatigue’. WHO refer to pandemic fatigue as a demotivation to engage in protective behaviours and feelings of complacency, alienation and hopelessness. The WHO suggests pandemic fatigue is driven by a loss of confidence in the government, tendency towards complacency and diminished perceptions of risk. The term ‘pandemic fatigue’ has faced backlash by academics because it implies the same policy solution to be appropriate in dealing with all of these drivers of diminished motivation. The term ‘fatigue’ under emphasizes the significance of restrictions placed on people’s lives and the feelings they are having towards them. This means that the management of so called ‘pandemic fatigue’ is not a one-size fits all approach, and instead a matter of understanding peoples individual values.

Individual perceptions of risk

In 1968 Gary Becker applied risk aversion to understanding why people break or obey laws, explaining how a “rational” individual weighs gains or losses from committing a crime relative to not committing the crime – including judgements in the probability of being caught.

The first issue of risk perception in the context of COVID is that anti-pandemic compliance behaviours aren’t perceived as ‘anti-social’. Everyday behaviours such as socialising, going on holiday or travelling unnecessarily now are suddenly stigmatised. And at a time of year when social gatherings and celebrations are the norm, people long for a sense of normality. Humans are already not completely rational and underestimate the probability of personally being caught, so the fact that these behaviours feel so normal causes many to minimise their risk of anti-compliance.

Because of this optimism bias we place on ourselves, the fear of punishment is not likely to be a strong driver of adherence to compliance behaviours. Instead, education around health risks and the personal dangers of COVID-19 are likely to be more motivating.

Individual pandemic experience

The tier system operating across the country means that there has not been a unified lockdown experience, which has meant the level of ‘fatigue’ felt will differ across the UK. Lockdown experience has not only been a factor of geography due to differentiated localised restrictions, but also at an occupational level; key workers have continued to work, while some office workers have transitioned to working from home. This lack of unified experience, depending on personal circumstance, is likely to be fuelling feelings of resentment and unfairness among those hardest hit by lockdowns.

MORE: How Covid-19 tiers are sparking an identity crisis in Britain

Those on the front line continue to see the danger of COVID-19, whereas those who reverted to a sense of normal life after the first lockdown have recalibrated their norm away from caution. What is clear is that there is no universal ‘norm’ in how we should behave, but instead dependent on personal circumstance.

Looking forward

Despite recent news of a vaccine on the way there is a high likelihood we will be required to follow safe COVID behaviours for a long time. To encourage social cooperation is it essential to understand how influential feelings and emotions are on our behaviours. We are not rational human beings who base decisions on the most optimal outcomes. In the current situation where our freedom and social interactions are restricted our behaviours will ultimately be shaped by our values, past experiences and also our personal perceptions of risk.

Stephanie Watson is a senior consultant at Behave

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