Social solidarity and social cohesion: The headline story of COVID-19

2 June 2020

By Professor Stephen Reicher (Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews)

Over recent weeks, social science has been in the media to an extent that I have never seen before. Discussions of social cohesion and social solidarity, of trust and of relations to authority have become the stuff of front-page headlines in the tabloid as well as the broadsheet press.

It might seem paradoxical that it has taken a medical emergency to get us here, but the reality is that, until we get a vaccine or effective drugs to treat the infection (and to some extent, even then), all the palliative measures have a central behavioural dimension. If that was obvious under lockdown, it is possibly even more important as we emerge, blinking, into the sunlight. If people fail to observe physical distance, to maintain hygiene, to comply with all the various stages of test, trace and isolate, the infection will spike and more people will die.

But it isn’t just the focus on behaviour that has come as a surprise, it is also the nature of the behaviour itself. Traditionally, the dominant approach has viewed people as psychologically fragile and prone to panic in a crisis. Their tendency to over-react, blindly seeking self-preservation, is what turns a crisis into a tragedy. In short, the public are part of the problem that the state has to manage.

However, this isn’t what happened. Far from falling apart and acting for themselves, people came together and acted for each-other. The development of social solidarity and of social cohesion is the real headline story of the pandemic. Not that this came easily. Work by Bobby Duffy and his group at King’s College, London shows that nearly half the population was suffering under lockdown and yet they resisted their ‘individual instincts’ to break the restrictions because they weren’t acting for themselves. They were acting for their community.

The continuing high level of adherence amazed the Government, and not just the Government. It was seen as a sign of something exceptional – something distinctively British: the ‘stiff upper lip’, the ‘Blitz spirit’. Indeed, whenever we see such solidarity in a crisis, those involved tend to see it as something exceptional about themselves (for instance, the ‘New York’ spirit after 9/11). But the study of disasters and emergencies shows that solidarity is not an exception. It is the rule. The work of John Drury and his team at Sussex explains why .

When people share the same intense experience in an emergency – ‘common fate’ – they begin to shift from thinking in terms of their personal identity to a social identity that they share with others. In colloquial terms, they shift from ‘I’ thinking to ‘we’ thinking. Once our sense of self is defined so as to include others, then their fate becomes ours, an injury to one becomes an injury to all. In this way shared identity is the psychological underpinning for social solidarity and support for erstwhile strangers. Altruism, then, is not an abnegation of selfhood, it derives from the social extension of the self.

But the emergent social identity in a crisis is a fragile thing. It has to be buttressed by good leadership that brings people together rhetorically and which provides practical support so the notion that ‘we are all in the same boat’ is not just rhetorical. But it can be damaged by bad leadership which fails to understand what New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called the ‘we concept’, which individualises people or, still worse, creates a divisive sense of ‘us and them’.

In this way, seemingly abstruse social scientific questions concerning the construction of social categories and debates over the respective roles of rhetoric and of practice in defining category boundaries are no longer confined to the pages of obscure academic journals. They occupy the front pages of the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror as well as the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

And when the pandemic is over, and the inevitable enquiries search for lessons learnt, we must make sure that these various questions are not lost. We need to address how mistaken notions of human fragility may have shaped decision making. We must remember how the public, united in solidarity, was an invaluable asset for confronting COVID-19. We should therefore consider how government is best able to nurture rather than undermine such psychological unity. Above all, let us understand the importance of treating the public as a partner rather than a problem in a pandemic – and beyond.

Visit the hub of the social science community’s response to COVID-19.

Professor Steve Reicher is Professor of Psychology in the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews. He participates in SPI-B, the Behavioural Science advisory group to SAGE. He is also part of the advisory group on COVID-19 to the Scottish Government. Steve’s co-authored book on the psychology of COVID-19 is currently available as a free download.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article:
This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.