Letter from Italy: Treating the Virus with a Proper Time Perspective
The understanding of individual time psychology can help fight the pandemic.
Posted Mar 18, 2020 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
I received a letter from my respected colleague Massimo Agnoletti, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist from Mestre, Italy, a city that faces the lagoon of Venice. Massimo writes about how the knowledge of time psychology is related to the fight against the coronavirus. I also learned that the word quarantine comes from Venice. Because of the situation we are facing right now worldwide, I thought I had to share Massimo's letter. Here it is:
March 18, 2020
There is no doubt that the complex social phenomenon resulting from the coronavirus pandemic will constitute a disruptive timeline, a before and after, in the history of our lives.
The word quarantine comes from the Latin word for the number forty and was first used in the 14th century in Venice. The Republic of Venice required forty days of isolation (from the Latin word “insula”, which means “island”) for the numerous foreign commercial ships that arrived at the lagoon city to contain the spread of the bubonic plague, the ‘black death,’ which was devastating Europe. During this period, people and goods were monitored on some islands in the Venetian lagoon.
The Venetians were wise to adopt the long-term strategy and renounce immediate benefits. Even without modern scientific knowledge, farsighted governmental decisions can effectively contain the spread of an infection to the point of eradicating it (Konstantinidou et al., 2009). This was achieved by at least partially limiting human interactions, thus enabling Venetian institutions to regain social control and restore health.
The coronavirus is a biopsychosocial phenomenon; it is a biological agent that needs a human host to multiply. Humans have psychological perspectives embedded in social contexts. A human being is defined by complex interactions among his/her biological, psychological, and sociocultural goal-directedness, each with its own purpose (Agnoletti, 2019). Human behavior is the result of these goal-directed interactions, which we call “fitness” in terms of physical and psychophysical health.
In this perspective, the social and physical isolation that limits the exposition to the virus, the emotional states we experience (the more negative emotions, the less effective our immune systems; the more positive emotions, the stronger our immune systems), the choices we make in our day-to-day behavior (washing hands frequently), will determine both our personal fitness and also, indirectly, the fitness of the community in which we live.
Research on the individual time perspective as conceptualized by Philip Zimbardo (Zimbardo & Boyd, 2008) and his research teams (Stolarski, Fieulaine & Van Beek, 2015) shows that the attitude towards personal time is absolutely crucial both at the individual level and for sociopolitical decisions, which have to be made by the governing bodies to decide and manage effective behaviors to prevent the virus from spreading.
In this period of uncertainty and stress, it is important to know that individuals, cultures, and institutions that are more fatalistic underestimate possible risk factors, as they are more focused on the hedonistic present and much less aware of the consequences of their individual and communal actions (think of the "corona parties" that have sprung up and have to be broken up by the police). For such individuals, highly restrictive policies may more effectively contain the virus compared to individuals who are more future-oriented and, thus, are more likely to behave more cautiously.
This psychosocial knowledge concerning the time perspective can be useful to understand the difference in epidemiological results between two nations, such as Italy and South Korea. These countries are comparable in the size of their populations and the efficiency of their health systems. Their cultures, however, differ greatly regarding respect for institutions and authorities. People in these two countries also differ in their individualistic and hedonistic present orientations.
The fact that South Korea promptly applied highly restrictive measures (stemming from their stronger future orientation) respected by the population limited the spread of the virus. The number of deaths was five times lower than in Italy when this was written.
Awareness of the time perspective could be crucial both to guide and improve individual adherence to government strategies implemented to diminish the damaging psychosocial and economic impacts of the virus.
The coronavirus forces us to be more aware of our reliance on social interactions. Restrictions on social interactions dramatically challenge our usual habits. What is my perception of risk and personal control over my life? How can I express sociability in a nonphysical manner?
The sooner we psychologically and culturally accept that we are part of a global human community with strong cohesion, the sooner we will be able to counteract the socioeconomic and personal damage caused by the virus.
In a nutshell, we need to individually and socially face this historical moment characterized by the spread of the coronavirus. It is necessary to be more aware of the need to act collectively in a compact, decisive, and positive way by making decisions oriented towards benefits in the medium and long-term future. We must recognize that some aspects related to immediate and short-term goals need to be significantly changed. We have to place our future common welfare over short-term individual interests.
I hope this letter finds you well,
Agnoletti, M. (2019). Il modello bio-psico-sociale alla luce della scienza dei telomeri. Medicalive Magazine, 3, 35-40.
Konstantinidou, K., Mantadakis, E., Falagas, M. E., Sardi, T., & Samonis, G. (2009). Venetian rule and control of plague epidemics on the Ionian Islands during 17th and 18th centuries. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 15(1), 39–43.
Zimbardo P. G., Boyd J. (2008). The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time That Can Change Your Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
Stolarski, M., Fieulaine, N., & Van Beek. W. (2015). Time perspective theory; review, research and application: Essays in honor of Philip G. Zimbardo. Cham: Springer.