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How Can We Benefit from the Public Health Crisis?

The pandemic forces us to reconsider how we can live together.

By Naomi Ellemers and Martin van Hees

We tend to think that we personally choose how we behave and assume that all we do is based on our own volition. Surely it is up to us to decide whether or not we monitor our children’s homework, what personal info we share with our neighbors, how often we visit the grandparents and how closely we hug them. We forget that most of these behavioral choices are far from personal. They are often influenced by what other people do, and what they feel is "right" and "wrong." In short, they are bound by social norms and shared moral values.

Most people across the world adhere to a similar set of norms and moral values. We generally consider caring for others as "good" and harming them as "bad," for instance. But what this means exactly can change from one situation to another. So when everything changes, suddenly it is not so easy to take guidance from prior habits that always seemed "right." Only a few weeks ago, visiting elderly and ill friends or relatives was an example of caring and "good" behavior. Now it represents a health threat for them and is seen as "bad."

Many norms are so deeply rooted we only become aware of them when they are disregarded. We can have this experience when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations, for instance when visiting a foreign country or in a new job. The responses to our unthinking acts suddenly make us see that what we consider "normal" maybe unexpected or even objectionable for others. In daily life, we are surrounded by formal and informal guidelines. Those who abide by these norms are valued and respected by others, those who ignore them elicit irritation, indignation or even social exclusion.

These guidelines have not been established by law or decree. We never formally decided to say hello and goodbye to fellow human beings, nor did we officially establish that people on a busy train platform should not board before the new arrivals get off. Social codes come into being because they offer a quick and easy way for individuals to coordinate their daily conduct, without having to consider every time how this can be done. This allows us to work and live together without too many difficulties. But these norms are tailored to specific situations. When a lockdown prevents people from traveling by train—and the platform is almost deserted—it no longer matters who boards or gets off first.

And this is where we are now: The public health crisis has turned the world on its head and all that we did as a matter of course no longer is self-evident. It suddenly is not so clear how we should behave to get through the difficult period stretching in front of us. Nobody has been through this before, and the internet is rife with contradictory advice. What should we do?

Moral leadership

Being the first to conclude that some choices are no longer acceptable takes moral courage. People usually resent this type of moral leadership: We all think we know best what is good for us. So when others criticise our habits and choices, tell us what to do, or think they know better, we tell them to mind their own business and stop behaving like a know-it-all.

Resisting those who criticize what we do happens not only when we disregard rules set by others, but also when we don’t behave according to goals we have set ourselves. Many people say they would like to eat less meat, fly less often, spend more time with the family or exercise more. Yet, they are not overly fond of being reminded that the daily choices they make don’t show their commitment to these goals, as many studies have shown. The reluctance to consider wider implications of the day-to-day choices we make is the reason we prefer not to discuss what we find morally acceptable or unacceptable, for instance in the workplace. Instead, we criticize those who do have the moral courage to stand up for their ideals. When they decide to act differently, this tends to cause conflict, unease and polarisation between different camps.

But now everything has changed. Only weeks ago it wouldn’t have entered your head to ask a colleague if their children are able to make their homework independently, or how they share household chores with their partners. But now that many people have been forced to work from home and schools are closed, people can only work together smoothly when they consider these practical problems faced by their colleagues.

It takes moral courage to question existing norms and reconsider daily habits. The call by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte to stop shaking hands is a good example. It also showed the power of this type of informal agreement. There is no basis in law for it and infractions won’t be fined. Rutte himself showed how difficult it is to break the habit of a lifetime—by shaking hands with an official immediately after the announcement. Yet, the new norm of not shaking hands was adopted remarkably quickly, kept to by all without grumbling. And that is rather unusual.

Many more social norms and habits will have to be revised in the coming weeks and months. Apart from being a nuisance this also offers a unique opportunity. It will give us a chance to have another look at things we took for granted, to reconsider the sustainability of common choices, and to determine once more what is morally acceptable or unacceptable. If there is one thing this crisis has brought home it is how much we depend on each other and on our willingness to keep to the rules we set ourselves. The world will never be quite the same again, but this also allows us to find new and more sustainable ways of living together in it.