5 Ways Psychology Explains Our Behaviour During the Covid-19 Pandemic

Covid-19 has shaken up our world. Since late 2019, it has threatened the lives, health, wellbeing and livelihoods of people across the planet, dramatically impacting our day-to-day and occupying much of our thinking.

This unprecedented event has also shaped changes to our behaviours and attitudes. From panic buying to dreaming more vividly, our minds have responded.

In this blog, we uncover five ways that psychology can explain our behaviour during, and changing responses to, the pandemic.


1. Our Continuing Need to Belong

Social distancing hasn’t changed our need to belong; separation triggers pain and, as social beings, we look to rectify this.

Collectively, we have found ways to feel less lonely during these difficult times. Digital activities, such as video calls, enable us to connect with our loved ones and we have even found unspoken ways to connect; the rainbow has become a symbol of hope, shared in people’s windows and painted onto walls, a sign of the message ‘stay safe’. In the UK, every Thursday developed into a true show of unity, with people stepping outside their front door at 8pm for the weekly ‘Clap for Carers’. Events like this, mirrored across the world, contributed to our sense of solidarity and belonging.

Tajfel (1979) linked our need to belong with our sense of social identity, suggesting that this instinctual activity is an important source of pride and self-esteem. Belonging is fundamental to our wellbeing and the groups we belong to have a profound impact on our thoughts, feelings and actions.

2. The Spread of Conspiracy Theories

From political crises to environmental disasters, events that happen away from the normal constructs of everyday life often result in conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ stories permeating through society – and Covid-19 has been no diferent.

Dr Daniel Jolley, an expert in the psychological consequences of conspiracies, believes that these stories could be potentially as harmful as the virus itself.

“Those that endorse these conspiracy theories may be less likely to follow the correct health advice which could have severe consequences,” he explains. “Not to be underestimated, this could include a further spread of infection, and ultimately a higher death count.”

Yet, as Santosh Vijaykumar, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow in Digital Health at Northumbria, argues, the spread and belief of misinformation isn’t surprising. He explains:

“Our memory is malleable. Our recollection of original facts can be replaced with new, false ones. We also know conspiracy theories have a powerful appeal as they can help people make sense of events or issues they feel they have no control over. This problem is complicated further by the personalisation algorithms underlying social media. These tend to feed us content consistent with our beliefs and clicking patterns, helping to strengthen the acceptance of misinformation… Rapid advances in digital technologies also ensures that misinformation arrives in unexpected formats and with varying levels of sophistication.”

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3. The Rise of “Lockdown” Dreams

Following lockdown, a number of people have taken to social media to talk about their dreams, with many noting theirs have become more vivid since social distancing was introduced. But why is this happening?

Jason Ellis, a Professor in Psychology at Northumbria University and Director of the Northumbria Centre for Sleep Research, explains that, while there is no evidence we dream more when stressed, we are more likely to remember our dreams because our sleep is poorer and we tend to wake in the night more frequently. He writes:

“Although our senses are dampened during sleep… strong sensory information, such as an alarm, will be registered and in some cases incorporated into the dream itself. We also know that during times of stress we are more vigilant to threat (on cognitive, emotional and behavioural levels), so it stands to reason that we are more likely to incorporate internal and external signals into our dreams, as a way to manage them.”

4. Our Desire to Conform

Although there have been a few exceptions, people across the world have conformed to the rules introduced to stop the spread of the virus. Whether it is staying away from loved ones or patiently standing in queues outside of supermarkets, we have all adjusted.

Of course, this is largely driven by our need to protect ourselves and others. However, Psychology also determines that we may be influenced to conform because we hope to receive a favourable reaction from a wider group. In Asch’s Line Experiment, he found that participants would go along with a group for fear of being ridiculed or thought peculiar. In the case of Covid-19, with tensions running high, and widespread criticism of those who do not conform, it is clear to see this link.

Yet, another study takes an alternative perspective. Sherif’s Effect Experiment understands that sometimes we conform because of an ambiguous and unclear situation – when we lack information, we strive to do the right thing and observing others can help us determine what this is. It is fair to say that this reasoning could also demonstrate why this unprecedented threat, which has posed so much uncertainty, has encouraged us to follow the guidance laid out for us.

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5. Our Kindness Towards Strangers

Although we are living in uneasy times, we are social creatures, and our love and understanding has been in abundance. In a crisis, people tend to develop a sense of duty and reasonability, with a desire to play their part. The ‘tend and befriend’ theory, developed by Professor Shelly Taylor, suggests that during times of significant stress, we turn to others for connection, support, and solidarity, even among strangers.

This can be seen in action with the NHS volunteer service; as soon as the request for help went out, five people per second signed up to the app. Originally, it was hoped 250,000 would sign up, but kindness showed its colours with over 750,000 offering their services.

Kindness can also be seen in the multiple fundraising events that have taken place, with fundraiser of the year going to Colonel Tom Moore, who, at nearly 100 years old raised, over £33million (to date) by simply walking laps of his garden.

Broaden Your Mind

Whether through nature or nurture, our innate psychology has underpinned our thoughts, feelings, moods, attitudes and perceptions during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Interested in the way we think, act and feel? Our distance learning Psychology MSc, with its module on Biological and Social Psychology, will help you learn more about the power of the human mind, while equipping you with the knowledge, skills and understanding you need to develop your career.

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