In today’s post we are going to talk about the changes in our behaviour during COVID-19, and whether we think these changes, some definitely for the better, will persist after the measures applied during COVID-19 are reduced until they are no longer in effect. And by we I mean our guest author: Rashi Khera!*
Disruptions in our lives have a novel way of encouraging us to rethink our priorities. The COVID-19 pandemic, though much more than just a disruption, has forced us to radically re-evaluate our lives. The question remains: will this have long-term implications on our individual, professional and social behaviours? To further understand how our world has been affected with this crisis, I aim to analyse several spheres of life to demonstrate whether the changes might be temporary, or here to stay.
My home town, New Delhi has been credited with having the worst air quality in the world (as high as 586 AQI; Economic Times, 2019). Every summer, my father would take us to our uncle’s house in Munich as he craved to breathe under the clean skies of Europe. Fast forward to COVID-19, and while most in the Indian capital fretted with disbelief and panic, nature rejoiced as the city went into lockdown. Peacocks were spotted dancing on the roads, birds basked in the sky and at night, you could even count the stars above your head!
As a result of reduced human activity, the AQI reached as low as 46 on some days (Economic Times, 2020).
The present bias is what makes humans short-sighted in their decision making approach. Choices that involve cognitive work in the present with the promise of reaping benefits in the unforeseeable future do not associate very well with the human brain. Therefore, “tomorrow or later” does not matter so much to us (BVA Nudge Unit, 2020). The most pressing concerns about the environment have been moved forward by governments and authorities all across the world for decades, however the present bias has had consistently affected the decision making capacity each time a change is debated upon.
The pandemic has shown us what a cleaner world would look like, but the cost we have paid for this preview is unimaginable and perhaps even unacceptable. This generation would better not forget the silver lining of environmental transformation amidst this dark cloud of COVID-19 and in the new future will take added decisions by holding themselves accountable. The impact our behaviours during COVID-19 have on the environment, and how to reverse the damage done, is something to keep an eye on for the next months or even years.
The last two months have been nothing short of a bitter sweet experience for families all over the world. Parents have had to juggle educating and entertaining their children whilst working from home. There are those who have lost their jobs or incurred losses in their business and face immense financial and psychological pressure. However, there are also households that have strengthened their bonds, due to being able to spend actual time together.
The two major causes of anxiety, fear of the unknown and desire to control the future, play a major part in defining our behaviour in these difficult times (Cohen, 2011). Families that have come together to take care of the essentials; taking one day at a time have managed to quell their anxieties while fostering teamwork. Individuals on the other end of the spectrum, have witnessed disharmony as a result of their feelings of powerlessness and the shadows of uncertainty.
Amidst all the uncertainty, the fact that the human mind has limited cognitive capacity has resurfaced often suggesting that having too many things on our mind leads us to resort to a tunnel vision, focussing on only on what seems momentarily ‘necessary’ (Mullainathan and Shafir, 2013). The negativity bias is one of the most potent pre-programmed mental heuristics that makes our brain instantly associate to potential dangers and threats (Veissière, 2020). This and our overburdened mind make it even more difficult to entertain sudden chaos that the pandemic has brought in our ordered lives.
As offices and schools start to reopen and everyone struggles to make sense of their old/new routines, the effect on familial relationships would be worth looking out for. Going back to the old routine might not seem nearly as desirable as it once did.
Globally, as employees get ‘Zoomed out’, boundaries between office and home have started to increasingly blur. Thanks to advanced communication technology, working constantly has creeped into our ‘down time’. The pandemic has intensified the situation with people being actively called ‘back to work’ at any time of the day. The constant tension between having to complete work and non-work obligations in the same period of time often leads to stress and frustration amongst the workers (Moore, 2020).
However, this crisis to some extent has made employers realise that individuals cannot function well without living up to their family responsibilities. For example, a grocery run has been considered a perfectly reasonable excuse for non-availability over the last couple of months! People have begun to start work early to finish their day at 4 PM to spend some quality time with their families.
Decades of psychological research suggest that individuals in their quest to fit in and to develop a positive self-image, often conform to perceived social norms. In the workplace, there are hardly any written rules for employees to work longer hours or to cancel personal commitments for work (Connolly et al., 2017). However, the unobserved social influence identifies “ideal” employees with these traits. Now imagine, on a WFH day, since you are not on a constant lookout for how often your colleague is being invited to the boss’ cabin, you might be able to work with more focus and present higher levels of productivity.
I do reckon that this novel WFH experience will encourage individuals to incorporate routine changes sparing time for themselves and their families. However, this would only be possible if employees and employers move away from the rather blasphemous assumption that a 24/7 work culture works for anyone.
Essential vs. non-essential
Amidst all the talk about refraining from “non-essential” contact in the fight against COVID-19, we might also have started distinguishing between “essential” and “non-essential” activities. On a ‘normal’ pre-COVID day, failure to find the perfect outfit to wear to work would serve as a reminder to buy some more clothes for our ironically overstuffed cupboard. On weekdays, we would be anxiously planning our heavy-on-the-pocket weekend getaways with our friends and family.
This quarantine may have helped us learn to live without things we would have previously fumed without, to the point of thinking of them as mandatory. Drinking at home with our loved ones and holding meaningful conversations is a perfect example of how the crisis has forced us towards introspection. However, as the lockdown lifts, the lingering question remains, will we hold on to these new habits or would all our guilty pleasures master over our mind again? On that first night out with friends, would we be so excited to be drinking in a bar that we would be tempted to overspend? Would the glamour of restaurants win against all our own cooking and baking?
The status quo bias makes it difficult for new habits to kick-in. The sole reason is that change is exhausting and human behaviour is predominantly guided by habits and reflexes. (BVA Nudge Unit, 2020). Having done the same things for a long time makes us conservative in our approach and our choices- a mere routine (Cherry, 2020). As we learn the importance of taking time out for ourselves, we may have broken the status quo by establishing new rules. However, as much of it was induced upon us, when the time comes, would we think twice before diving back into society’s whirlpool?
As we march, or rather slowly crawl, towards a post-COVID world, after the adjustment period, we will re-evaluate which behavioural changes worked for us during the crisis and which behavioural changes we will sustain. The human mind has a short memory span, and maybe after several months, once the economy booms and society flourishes again, would we require another pandemic to remind us of everything that ought to be changed in our lives for the better?
*Rashi is a graduate in Development Studies from the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex. She recognised her inclination towards Behavioural Science as she wrote her masters thesis on ‘Cognitive impact of poverty and its effects on decision making capacity of the poor’. She is also pursuing an independent study on the psychology of philanthropy and what motivates donor giving. To further her career in Behavioural Science, she is all set to begin her MSc Behavioural Science at Kingston University in September!