Friday, March 27, 2020

When Anxiety Yields to Grief


A New Roller Coaster of Emotions

Last week the world around us started to shut down. Country after country implemented lockdowns, and by now about 37% of the world population is experiencing some form of restricted movement and limited social contact. It was striking when the German chancellor Angela Merkel remarked in her speech to the country how for her, having previously lived in the German Democratic Republic, freedom to travel was one of the most precious rights. It reflected the seriousness and desperation of the Coronavirus crisis that she was forced to take it away from her own citizens. Many other world leaders followed suit, including India, where now over 1.3 billion people are prohibited from leaving their homes, not even for work.

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home it has meant uprooting daily routines and workflows, re-arranging child care and other family responsibilities, making household preparations for potentially extended periods of limited access to goods and services, and so on. All this involves a lot of uncertainty, which can generate anxiety, an intensive feeling that helps up tackle challenges because it signals that stuff needs to be done. But in addition, we are likely to also go through a range of other emotions, some perhaps more unexpected, so it’s useful to look at some of the relevant research.  

In a classic paper James Russell (1980) grouped emotions along two dimensions, namely Valence, that is, whether the emotion is pleasant or unpleasant, and Activation, that is, whether it involves a high level of physiological arousal. The latter gets the body fired up to deal with problems in life: The heart is pumping, hormones are rushing around and overall we have a sense of urgency as we try to figure out the best course of action. Many theorists view this as the main function of emotions, namely that they propel us to act in specific ways. That’s why there are a whole range of emotions in the upper left quadrant, where activation meets negativity. Feeling restless, agitated, nervous and tense are part of this cluster. 


The Circumplex Model of Emotion (Russell, 1980).


Anxiety is an extended, lasting version of fear and as such is high in negativity, and in activation. But because of this high level of activation, at some point it will run out of steam: There is a limit to which the body can sustain a constant a state of alarm because it’s energetically costly, and wears you down. Then different negative emotions are likely to kick in, namely those that are low in activation, further down on the wheel in the figure above, toward deactivation. Sadness is the feeling of having lost something. Its close cousin, grief, is also about loss, but on a much larger scale. It occurs, for example, after having lost a significant other, either due to death or separation (1). It reflects the magnitude of losing something or someone that is irreplaceable, so it’s not just a temporary feeling, but something more persistent and significant.

We can expect that people will experience grief for having lost the lives they were used to. For many, the Coronavirus crisis has meant the end of the world as we know it. This can be on a profound level, with people losing jobs and therefore directly facing the possibility of no longer being able to put food on the table. Already we have seen millions of new unemployment claims in the United States, and this number is likely to go up even more. Many people therefore experience a massive loss in life circumstances for the worse. But plenty of others also experience upheavals of various kinds, on a different scale, but the felt loss can still be very real to them. For example, pupils and students whose graduation ceremonies might not happen as planned, will likely miss the celebrations that usually mark the transition from such a formative period to the next stages of their lives.

For many of us, thankfully, changes will be minor and perhaps even trivial, but they still reflect a clear departure from daily habits, routines, and all the little things we have been taking for granted. For example, every now and then I catch myself making plans about the next time I meet up with someone, only to then remember that this probably won’t happen any time soon. It’s certainly not a big deal compared to what other people are going through, but it does mark the fact that we’re living in different times, and need to come to grips with something we have never dealt with before.

The Punchline:

The Coronavirus crisis has changed people’s lives in so many ways, some that are major, and others that are only very minor. As we adjust to our new realities and settle into new routines we are likely visited by a mix of emotions. In addition to anxiety, the natural response to uncertainty, sooner or later we might encounter more unexpected feelings, namely a strong sense of loss, or even grief. Give yourself permission to experience this whirlwind of emotions. It’s a tough time for all of us, so it’s worth trying to be compassionate and patient with yourself, and with others.



(1) Many people will also experience intense grief following the loss of a loved one to the COVID-19 disease. This is of course much more tragic than the loss of one's routines in life, as described above. I’ll discuss it in a separate post.


Thursday, March 19, 2020

Pluralistic Ignorance


When We Mistakenly Assume We’re All on the Same Page


I have been struck by how I seem to live in two completely different worlds as far as the Coronavirus is concerned: When I talk to people in my professional life, or go through my Twitter feed, there is widespread agreement that the threat from the virus is severe, and needs to be dealt with urgently, with full force. But when I look around in everyday life, for example last week when I walked to the office or to shops, I get the impression that many people still just go about their regular business.

We often rely on social norms in situations of uncertainty. It’s an example of an Informational Social Influence, that is, we look at others to figure out what to think, and what to do, because we’re not quite sure about it ourselves. Often that makes sense, and is useful, but sometimes it leads us astray, and results in what is called Pluralistic Ignorance. It’s the phenomenon where everyone acts differently from what they really think, because nobody wants to be the odd one out, and come across as foolish, or unpopular. But as a consequence, we go along with it, even if we’re all wrong. It's a bit like the children’s tale about the emperor’s new clothes, who in fact is not wearing anything, but none of his underlings dare to say so because they assume that surely, others must know something that they don’t.



Research has shown that pluralistic ignorance can occur in many different situations. A classic study by Prentice and Miller (1993) showed that while most undergraduate students thought that their peers were much bigger fans of excessive alcohol than they were themselves, in reality none of them were all that much into drinking. But since nobody wants to be the party pooper, they all acted as if getting drunk is the best thing ever, thus creating a false social norm. 

Pluralistic Ignorance is relevant for the current coronavirus situation. A poll from March 17 shows that even though many people now stay home more, a sizable number (41%) still continues to go out as normal, as this figure shows. 


This is worrisome, because the poll was conducted just the day after the UK government tightened their recommendations and advised to “stop non-essential contact with others.” The problem is that as a citizen, it’s hard to know what exactly following this advice would mean. No more chats with your neighbour, or in-person meetings? Not going to restaurants, shops, or even not going to work? Many countries have systematically shut down schools, shops, restaurants, to rule out precisely this ambiguity.

In general, if there is a social norm that people think others subscribe to, they are less likely to voice an opinion if they fear that it conflicts with the norm. This is especially difficult when it comes to how we are expected to act in social situations. It’s awkward, to say the least, when someone puts out their hand and you refuse to shake it. Likability and trust are key dimensions when we form impressions of others, and we all want to be seen as literally approachable, so ‘socially distancing’ yourself from others can be uncomfortable.

What’s the solution? There are no easy answers, since the COVID-19 pandemic is an evolving situation, and quick decisions need to be made taking many factors into account. But the key is to take the guess-work out of the advice given to the general public: Guidance needs to be as specific as possible. That might even mean shutting down certain services and points of contact, such as schools, restaurants, pubs, etc. even if it means great disruptions to everyday life, because then the message is clear: Going to restaurants is no longer safe. This can also have a signal function: If restaurants are closed it suggests that something very serious is going on, and that it is no longer time to ‘keep calm and carry on.’  

The Punchline:

When it comes to the coronavirus and COVID-19, governments and other decision makers need to make it crystal-clear what specific actions need to be taken. If you are unsure and you go along with what others are doing, ask yourself every now and then: Is it appropriate to assume that they know something that you don’t, for example, because they have the relevant expertise, or access to specialized information? Even more importantly, are others looking to you for guidance on what to do? If you are in a position of power or authority, this is likely the case. So you need to lead by example, in order to not reinforce social norms that make it seem like everyone is on the same page, when it fact we may all be equally uncertain.