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A scientist’s opinion: Interview with Professor John Drury about changes in social identity during COVID-19

John Drury, The young woman with medical mask on her face stands on the crowded street

Interview with John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology and Director of Research and Knowledge Exchange in the School of Psychology at the University of Sussex, UK.

How does our social identity change during mass emergencies and disasters, and in times of a pandemic such as this one?

John Drury: Social identity is a very useful concept for understanding collective behaviour, understanding how we behave with others, and understanding commitment. In previous research, we found that cooperation is a common behaviour among mass emergency survivors — more than we expected. This phenomenon had previously been explained through sociology rather than psychology. According to the previous work, survivors acted upon existing social norms in helping people that they were already connected with and cared about. However, in many emergency events, people are amongst complete strangers, and yet have been found helping and cooperating with them. For example, in the 2005 London bombings, where three underground trains and a bus were blown up by terrorists, and over 50 people died, we found that people did not have a sense of unity with others at first — they were just trying to get a seat on the train, for example. They were commuters with no prior connections. But immediately after the bombing they had a strong sense of togetherness, unity or closeness, and they felt like a group – they had a shared social identity. It was not a group identity with a history, such as that of football club supporters or national identity, for example, rather it is a new identity that emerges in that situation. There is a change, a new sense of ‘we-ness’, that comes about through a perception of common fate that ‘we’re all in this together’; we are grouped together by the emergency and that transforms our sense of who we are and our relationship with others. ‘They’ are now ‘us’ instead of these other individuals. So identity becomes shifted from the personal to the collective — something we have also seen in the coronavirus pandemic too. This transformation from a ‘me’ to a ‘we’ is a common feature of mass emergencies and natural disasters such as fires, floods or earthquakes. But it also declines over time.

Could you explain the Social Identity Model in mass emergencies and disasters, and how has this been applied to the coronavirus pandemic? Is this shared social identity sustainable long-term?

John Drury: In the social identity model of behaviour in mass emergencies, when people experience a sense of common fate, they now see themselves as a group instead of seeing themselves as individuals. Various consequences follow from that: they want to help others because the others are now seen as part of self, and they care about others. So the boundaries of concern are extended from the personal self to the collective self. But people also expect support from others because they’re ‘us’ and therefore they care about me. That in turn makes people feel more able to act because they’ve got support, so it makes coordinated action possible. However, this model focused on the acute phase within an emergency. If we look at it in time, across 12 months for example like in the pandemic, we will see a slightly different picture.

In the pandemic, there has been academic and anecdotal evidence showing that there was an initial psychological transformation similar to the one I’ve been describing. Quite early on, we all became aware of an enhanced sense of national unity or togetherness. We saw this in people that wouldn’t normally give time to the UK’s Conservative government, where they were more willing to give them a chance; we saw this in everyday interaction, where people acknowledged each other, said hello to their neighbours and were more caring. We also saw it with the rise of mutual aid groups; and we saw it in the compliance of the measures. For example, researchers found that the sense of togetherness, particularly in the first two or three months, was raised from normal levels.

However, the unity has also been shown to have declined, which is consistent with all the research suggesting that the unity in disaster communities rises and then falls. This could be linked to political events that have led to a perception amongst many people that ‘we are not in this all together’ and ‘there are some rules for them and some rules for us’. For example, the Dominic Cummings event in the UK, where people responded very negatively to the British Prime Minister’s chief adviser breaking lockdown but their complaints were dismissed. Similar breaches of the rules by political figures also happened in other European countries including Germany, Spain, and Poland. That sense of unity became eroded; trust in the government declined in the UK and countries around Europe. For example new Croatian research shows that this has happened in Croatia too.

People have also become more aware that the way the pandemic affects people is not equal. If you look at the people most affected, they’re frontline workers, ethnic minorities, and the most deprived. So we can’t say we’re all affected in the same way. That’s not to say that people have stopped helping and supporting others. If you look at the covid mutual aid groups, which is my current project, they are still very active. They don’t get as much media publicity as they did at the beginning, but they’re still around and active. The sense of being a part of your community, the sense of identity is a driver for involvement in mutual aid groups.

In times of crises, is this shared identity in crowd behaviour sustainable and can it last long-term?

John Drury: There isn’t a generic crowd behaviour because what each crowd does is a function of its identity. Identity can be understood as a process but also as a content. The process means we all have personal identities, but we all have collective identities too from being a member of different groups. Some of those groups might be long-standing social categories, while others may arise within emergencies or crowd events as a new sense of who we are — this ‘we’ that groups ‘us’ with others. So we can shift from a personal to a collective identity and see ourselves in collective terms. This variability of identities is a universal process.

John Drury: But each identity has its own values, norms, and interests. These are what determines the contours of behaviour. So the norms of being a lecturer are different from the norms of being a football fan; the norms of being a protester are different from the norms of being student, and so on. There is a meaningful change in who we are and what we do that comes about through involvement; it’s a change into being a new self, a new sense of who we are. The identities that arise in emergencies decline because the social conditions that make them salient also decline. For example, for people who come together in a flooding incident, that ‘flood identity’ becomes less relevant as a well of defining themselves collectively. The flood waters have receded, and their lives are dominated by their personal concerns again. However, often people still need support – they still need the group – to help them rebuild their lives. Our research has found that these disaster identities and groups can be kept alive when people strategically act to do so. They organise meetings and events to bring people together and keep the group alive. Unless people act in these ways, the group will fade over time.

How can governments use the social identity approach during the pandemic?

John Drury: Governments need to include people both psychologically and practically. The psychological inclusion is the way that people are addressed in their collectivity, in their collective needs and their collective motives, whereas the practical inclusion involves co-production. On both counts, the social identity approach would suggest how things can be changed for the better to get greater buy-in and greater public involvement in the pandemic response. Governments that are top-down and not very inclusive, and announce information or instructions without consultation, will not engage people or get them onboard. This approach is alienating for people rather than making them feel a part of the process. When the government gives out messages about why we should wear masks or why we should distance, for example, such a message in terms of protecting yourself as an individual is less effective than a message which says ‘do it for others, do it for your community, do it for your family, do it for your neighbours, do it for your gran, do it for the National Health Service (NHS)’. If you’re asking people to think of their own personal health, and they’re young and fit, they would discount that advice. But care for others, particularly when there is already a strong sense of collectivity, is an excellent motivator of commitment to protective behaviours.

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