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Psychology Helps Us Better Predict Crisis Behavior

The pandemic is as much of a behavioral crisis as a medical one.

A variety of psychological theories can help us to better understand, appreciate, and predict crisis behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic. These theories are consistent with the notion that extreme social stress can bring out the better, or worse, “angels of our nature," as Abraham Lincoln famously put it during his Civil War-era inaugural address.

The better angels of our nature are further understood by the Tend and Befriend theory developed and researched primarily by Professor Shelly Taylor at UCLA. It suggests that during times of significant stress, we tend to turn to others for connection, support, and solidarity, even among strangers. During a pandemic, it is wonderful to hear stories about — or to personally experience — remarkable acts of kindness, compassion, and graciousness towards others. Young people offer to help elders who are unable to get food or other supplies or just people chatting amicably in long grocery lines are all heartwarming. People share surplus supplies and offer to help neighbors they may not know at all. All are examples and predictable if one understands the tend and befriend theory.

The darker angels of our nature can be witnessed by some of the more exploitative, selfish, and hoarding behaviors witnessed during a crisis: for example, the run on toilet paper and other stockpiling of certain grocery items. When people experience fear, they can have the tendency to circle the wagons and get selfish, behaving more primitively. Social comparison theory helps us better understand this herd mentality for behaving in ways that are selfish under stress. Observational Learning theory and social or behavior contagion theory informs us that if others are stockpiling on certain items or behaving in certain positive or negative ways, then we should too thus reinforcing a herd mentality. In addition, the Frustration-Aggression hypothesis can help us better understand how as people get more frustrated they are at risk of acting more violently.

Knowing something about human behavior and psychology can help us to understand and perhaps, more importantly, predict and plan for likely social behavior. Thus, during challenging public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, which is surely likely to get worse before getting better, treating the crises as a behavioral social health problem that specifically attempts to nurture the better angels of our nature may be as helpful as any medical or public health interventions.

For additional reflections on COVID-19 as a "wake up" virus for modern times, please see my recent op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star with co-author, colleague, and former mentor, Gary Schwartz, Ph.D., of the University of Arizona.

Copyright 2020, Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP