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Social Psychology Help In Understanding Responses To The Current Pandemic

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Table of contents

  1. Government response; Group dynamics; group-think theory etc.
  2. Anti-lockdown protests UK (+US); relative deprivation theory and group polarisation
  3. Cite studies, refence social media, link to coronavirus

In this essay I will consider the responses to the coronavirus pandemic on two main levels; Government responses (policies, rules and restrictions, decision making processes etc.) and Public responses (protests, conspiracy theorists, individual’s mental health etc.). I will discuss how social psychology can be used to rationalise group’s and individual’s behaviours, by applying theories centering around group dynamics, social norms and intergroup processes.

Government response; Group dynamics; group-think theory etc.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the UK Government has been scrutinised for acting too slowly, too late, or just taking the wrong approach in trying to control the virus (Perrigo, 2020). Through the use of social psychology, the government’s responses can be rationalised and explained. For example, the group dynamics of the government, regulatory and advisory groups can influence group processes, such as decision making, which can be mistaken or flawed when certain dynamics occur. Several politicians, scientists and journalists have reported that ‘groupthink’ may’ve impaired the government’s ability to make proper decisions in response to the virus (Heneghan and Mahtani, 2020).

Groupthink (Janis, 1972) occurs within a group when the desire for group cohesion is greater than individual’s want for a successful outcome, leading to dysfunctional decision making and adverse outcomes. Groupthink can develop when a group has strong leadership, little outside input and the desire for unanimous agreement, these are ‘antecedent’ conditions. These conditions make the group believe that they’re invulnerable, unanimous in their decision and inherently moral and rational. When a groupthink dynamic occurs, there is pressure on all members to conform, dissenting members are made to feel ostracised, and part of an ‘outgroup’ (as opposed to the main ‘ingroup’). The resulting symptoms of groupthink lead to defective decision making, failing to; effectively assess objectives, search thoroughly for relevant information and examine key risks.

In an interview with Channel 4 news, Jeremy Hunt, Chair of the Health Select Committee and former UK Health Secretary, said that “Our response was conditioned on this idea that [coronavirus] was something you can’t stop” (Channel 4 news, 2020). Having this pre-existing notion that the spread of the virus was inevitable may’ve been resultant from a groupthink dynamic.

Hunt, as have several others, cited groupthink as the reason for the UK’s slow and confused responses, also claiming that had scientific advice presented to ministers been more “transparent” the UK would have taken a different course of action during the early stages of the virus (Allegretti, 2020). The reported lack of transparency is a major barrier to effective and democratic decision making as there is no accountability, and so politicians can make decisions without having to face the consequences. This may mean that risky, or venal decisions, are more likely to be made; for example, the government may favour saving the economy rather than people’s lives. Clearly, this lack of transparency is dangerous and (Geoghegan and Corderoy, 2020).

Many government decisions have been named as being reckless and irrational, the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme (EOTHOS) has been criticised for being a cause of the ‘second wave’ of the virus in the UK (Skopeliti, 2020), whilst the failure to implement any border measures to prevent the spread of the virus was described as “inexplicable” (Metcalfe, 2020).

It’s clear that there have been many poor decisions, but what’s more worrying is that it seems the government has failed to learn from their mistakes and continue to make unwise decisions. Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor, has suggested that groupthink has been the main cause of ill-thought government policies, also saying that – for Economic reasons – politicians want to avoid a lockdown, and that that’s why lockdowns had been delayed (Channel 4 news, 2020). In regard to government decision making in response to the pandemic, groupthink may’ve occurred in some UK advisory bodies including; NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) and SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies).

In an article discussing the UK government’s shortcomings in dealing with the virus, Richard Coker wrote that “Coronavirus can only be beaten if groups such as SAGE are transparent and accountable” (Coker, 2020, p.1). Also advising that expert advice shouldn’t always be taken so readily, saying that ‘expert’ theories may be lacking in real evidence. This news article examined the stages of groupthink that may’ve occurred in government decision making processes and gave advice on how it could be prevented in the future; through transparency, inclusivity and accountability.

Groupthink has been said to also occur in ill-defined ‘ad-hoc’ groups, whose members aren’t well acquainted and who haven’t yet worked together (Forsyth 2020). This may’ve been a particularly prevalent problem for the government in February, as groups who may not have worked closely together would’ve been thrust together and pressured to work effectively.

The government’s failings may’ve started before Covid-19 even existed though; NERVTAG recommended increased PPE and ventilator supplies in a 2017 pandemic response rehearsal – yet these were not approved at the time. Dr Phillip Lee, a former minister said that the government has been “asleep on the job” in regard to preparing for such a pandemic.

However, considering the unprecedented nature of these current events in recent times, it may be harsh to criticise the government for all of their failings, as so many variables and considerations have to be made, and under such great pressure. Although, the failure to consider and prevent groupthink occurring may’ve been the governments greatest failing.

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Anti-lockdown protests UK (+US); relative deprivation theory and group polarisation

Especially likely with the widespread use of social media these days; echo chambers(?)

In response to growing frustration at government measures, several countries have seen protests occur, due to growing frustration from people being forced to continue to have to lockdown and postpone their ‘normal’ lives. Social psychology can be used to explain this response, and its underlying causes. Using theories of group dynamics, we can explain that, in group situations, decisions are more likely to be riskier or more extreme, leading to more daring behaviour.

The idea of a ‘risky shift’ was first introduced in the 1920’s, to describe the idea that groups make riskier decisions that individuals. Wallach, Kogan, and Bem (1964) put this down to a diffusion or responsibility, Collins and Guetzkow (1964) theorised that it was due to risk takers being more confident, and so more likely to persuade others to take risks, whilst Brown (1965) suggested risk taking in groups is associated with a higher social status, meaning people avoid low risk positions.

More recent thinking has explained that risky shift is actually a facet of ‘group polarisation’, and that groups don’t necessarily always take riskier decisions, but that groups make more extreme decisions; which can either be riskier, or more cautious; this is dependent on the initial attitudes presented by the group. Group polarisation occurs when discussion prompts attitudes held by the individual group members to become more extreme than they would be on an individual level (Brauer, Judd, & Gliner, 2006). The two main theories as to why this occurs are; mutual persuasion, the idea that mere discussion of arguments for/ against an action exposes individuals to the consensus opinion, and social comparison, which explains that the desire to be more extreme than the average group member motivates polarisation (similar to Brown’s explanation).

In regard to the pandemic, group polarisation may lead to the belief that the virus is a ‘hoax’ designed for one reason or another with the aim of taking away individual’s freedom.

Protests in Barcelona in late October followed the decision by the Spanish government to announce a ‘six-month state of emergency’ in response to the pandemic. Protestors chanted “Libertad” (meaning freedom) whilst protesting in the streets, Jones (2020) wrote that people protesting were part of a violent and irrational minority, and detailed the response of Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez who said responsibility, unity and sacrifice are necessary to beat the pandemic.

Cite studies, refence social media, link to coronavirus

In the ‘Group Dynamics when Battling a Pandemic’ article (Parks, 2020) groupthink is given as an explanation for protests against the pandemic restrictions. The paper uses the USA to articulate this point;

The rise of rule-breakers (Davies, 2020) noted that, during the pandemic, rules are constantly changing, creating an ambiguous situation, and that this is likely to cause people to interpret rules to suit themselves, and that therefore these new rules were ineffective. Social norms is able to explain this; creating new laws is relatively easy, but the development of new social norms and etiquettes is much more difficult to create, and so disobeying laws (or interpreting them to suit ones-self) is much easier to do, as there are no ‘injunctive’ social norms to go by. The situations ambiguity may therefore explain how, or why people are seemingly ‘disobeying’ the rules.

Protestors want freedom, believe virus is a hoax, distrust in the government; intergroup bias against government

Relative deprivation and coronavirus; experience of discontent when being deprived of something to which one believes they’re entitled to; economic, political or social, leading to hostility and prejudice toward oppressors/ those with-holding desired freedoms (government). Accentuated by the wide-spread use of social media today, as social comparison with peers is much more likely to happen

People live in a perceived world and respond to events in a way that they see fit (Stekelenburg, 2013). Social psychology aims to explain why people in the same situation react in different ways, using the causes of thoughts, feelings and actions – and how these are influenced by social contexts to make sense of this. Classical models of protest name protest as a way to express objection to perceived injustice, frustration or a sense of relative deprivation (Lind and Tyler, 1988). Whilst more current explanations observe collective identity as the reason for protest (Klandermans and de Weerd 2000), Klandermans (2008). also noted the mediating role of social embeddedness in this process.

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Social Psychology Help In Understanding Responses To The Current Pandemic. (2021, September 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 22, 2023, from
“Social Psychology Help In Understanding Responses To The Current Pandemic.” Edubirdie, 16 Sept. 2021,
Social Psychology Help In Understanding Responses To The Current Pandemic. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 22 Sept. 2023].
Social Psychology Help In Understanding Responses To The Current Pandemic [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2021 Sept 16 [cited 2023 Sept 22]. Available from:
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