Behavioural economist explains how feelings of responsibility and blame play out in a pandemic.

With Boris Johnson encouraging employees back into workplaces, and the new rules about mask wearing in effect, the government is shifting responsibility for containing the pandemic to us.

A survey of more than 2000 UK consumers conducted in June, 2020, by Sapio Research and Blok BioScience has revealed some fascinating insights about how Brits see their responsibility for keeping the country, and each other, safe.

Yolanda Berry MSc, behavioural economist at Blok BioScience, has been digging into the complex emotions of guilt, blame and responsibility, that the pandemic has thrown up for all of us. She says:

“The pandemic has hit us in a very emotional spot. It’s exposed our mortality. In today’s modern society we humans feel we can control anything, but this virus has reminded us how vulnerable we are. We have so many questions we simply can’t answer – Have I had it? If I get it, how will my body react? Will I survive it?”

The uncertainty around the answers to these questions are less than comfortable for our human minds. As Berry explains,

“That makes us feel very uneasy and out of control, so we try and find things we can control. And while we can control our own behaviour, we can’t control other people’s, so instead we judge it and hold others to blame for things such as local lockdowns and virus flareups.”

The emotional impact of this responsibility to contain the virus is huge, with feelings of guilt strong and the temptation to blame others rife. Unsurprisingly, a third (33%) of respondents already feel that their mental health deteriorated in lockdown, and it remains to be seen what the impact will be on community spirit and social cohesion.

Institutional Trust in Check

As directives fluctuate, it turns out around half of people (44%), don’t trust the government guidelines anyway, and three quarters (73%) have already taken matters into their own hands, believing they’re doing enough to protect themselves and their loved ones.

But they don’t have such a good opinion of others’ efforts, with less than a third (27%) satisfied that the public are doing enough to reduce the spread of the virus.

Plus, a shocking 1 in 10 people (10% – and 17% of those under 45) said they were likely to go to a COVID-19 party (in order to get the infection over and done with).

‘We’re All Good Guys’

Yolanda continues:

“It’s easy to go into denial about our own behaviour, and think that we’re different or special. We don’t notice our infractions, while judging others harshly for theirs. We’re all ‘good guys’. We’re pretty sure that we’re right. If we’re wrong we feel bad and our self-esteem suffers. Denial serves to keep our self-esteem intact. This is why we see faults in others, and often not in ourselves.”

This month, employers are being given the responsibility of keeping their workers safe, but less than half (43%) of employees think their bosses are doing enough. That’s despite over half (47%) feeling under pressure to go back to the workplace. A return would cheer up the 8% who miss their daily commute, though!

Blok BioScience’s Immunity Passport

To help businesses keep their workers safe during these shifts, and for individuals to feel in control of their pandemic health info, Blok BioScience has created an Immunity Passport. Unlike other tech solutions to the pandemic, this Immunity Passport and all the info stored on it belong to the individual – not their employer, or their government.

Yolanda explains:

“Using an Immunity Passport is one way to affirm ourselves as ‘good guys’. And we need that for us all to feel safe. It allows us to demonstrate social responsibility – that we’ve ‘done our bit’ . And because it works without giving up personal privacy, it can’t be used to discriminate against people who have not had the virus yet, or access to a future vaccine.”

Yolanda Berry MSc, is a behavioural economist. She is available for comment on topics related to emotional response, behaviour and psychology amid the coronavirus pandemic. Do get in touch if you’d like quotes, or to speak to her.