Evolutionary & Social Psychology
Mark Schaller is a Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He has published scientific research and made many contributions to the study of human psychology, particularly in areas of social cognition, evolutionary and cultural psychology. He developed a broader line of research on the perceived threat of infectious disease and coined the term “behavioral immune system”.
Transcription of the video
For a lot of people in many parts of the world, particularly those of us who live in these relatively wealthy, modernized parts of the world, the threat posed by infectious diseases has kind of been off our radar, and this pandemic has changed that and as a result that’s offered an opportunity at a massive worldwide scale to have increased awareness of, and education about the challenges that infectious diseases pose to people and pose to a way of life that we take for granted. This is maybe even more important, a means through which these challenges can be met. So it’s really been an unprecedented learning opportunity. I think particularly to learn about how this is kind of weird and invisible force of nature can be mitigated through the coordinated combination of sensible thoughtful responses by individuals, by communities, by the folks who are entrusted to govern these communities. And these lessons, if in fact, we do learn them, can serve individuals and societies as we face additional challenges in the future.
Given that this positive change is contingent upon learning, there’s a kind of a necessary willingness to learn. In particular, there’s necessary willingness to learn from past mistakes. So this pandemic because it’s been unprecedented within most people’s lifetimes, and the means of mitigating the pandemic have required sudden changes in individual behavior and sudden changes in public policy, it’s been hard. So naturally, folks have made mistakes, folks have screwed up. At an individual level, this has happened, people have blithely attended church services or gone to nightclubs, and as a result have passed on their incipient infections to other folks. Government officials and lots of countries around the world have been slow to respond or reluctant to take actions that we now know could have prevented millions of infections and thousands and thousands of deaths. And that’s a terrible tragedy. And it’ll be even perhaps greater tragedy if these individuals fail to admit their mistakes, fail to learn from those mistakes. This is where this wisdom comes in, that if people and that includes ordinary people like you and me as well as government officials, if we have the wisdom to critically self-reflect on the mistakes that we’ve made and to learn from them, then ideally we’ll be better prepared to respond swiftly and sensibly and thoughtfully to future challenges.
The real negative consequence is that a hell of a lot of people have died and a hell of a lot of people are bereaved, and a hell of a lot of people are experiencing a lasting hit on their health and well-being. And it’s a massive tragedy. People may be inclined to be more interpersonally wary of other people, even when the pandemic’s over and there isn’t that increased risk of infection. People may still act as though there is. For the past several months, we have erected barriers between ourselves and other people. Some of those barriers are behavioral, there are restrictions, some self-imposed, some imposed by others, on who we interact with and how we interact with them. And some of these barriers are physical barriers, like these plexiglass shields that you see in grocery stores now. And I assume that over time, some of these barriers will dissolve. And, certainly the informal ones are likely to dissolve, I’m certainly looking forward to touching, hugging my friends again. But I’m guessing that some of these barriers are going to stick around for a while, and there’ll be these consistent, persistent reminders of the pandemic. And that’s perfectly sensible from an epidemiological perspective, but it’s kind of a drag for interpersonal interaction. And so my concern is that there’s going to be this persistent, lasting wariness of interactions with other people, especially strangers. That represents a low-level erosion of interpersonal trust and erosion of social capital.
I think it’s a hard problem to solve, in part because I think we humans tend to think, kind of naturally in a bit of a simple minded way about interpersonal trust in the sense that we tend to, either trust people or we don’t, and to kind of overcome that, to think of people as simply not just folks I don’t trust, we might need to make some finer distinctions, more nuanced, more compartmentalized approach to thinking about trust and that’s going to be effortful. I think kind of the wisdom necessary, maybe is something like this, some sort of effort for cognitive strategy of compartmentalizing the risk of infection. So that even if I’m reminded that a casual social interaction brings with it some potential risk of disease transmission, I resist the tendency to over generalize that appraisal to simply view this person as a non-trustworthy person. So that ideally I’ll still trust that person in a variety of other ways. And ideally, that person will still trust me and will continue to appreciate the goodness of this opportunity for the social interaction and we’ll continue to seek out rather than avoid casual social interactions with other people.
So, the first one has to do with perspective taking. For a lot of people, some bit of perspective taking can help. That is, what people have been going through, feels hard and the uncertainty associated with it feels hard and the hits that they’ve taken to their well-being, their way of life, to their jobs, to the health of friends and family, it’s hard. And in that context, it can sometimes be helpful to realize that almost certainly somewhere in the world, perhaps even right next door, other folks have it harder. And having that perspective can help make people feel less overwhelmed by it, a little bit more compassionate for other folks. The second piece of wisdom is, it ties into this thing that psychologists talk about when they talk about a distinction between threat and challenge and how what is perceived to be a threat can be mentally reconstrued as a challenge. So the idea is something like this, that a lot of what’s been happening in people’s lives feels pretty overwhelming, the threat of disease, the uncertainty about the future and if those are viewed simply as kind of threats, then it can be overwhelming. But if one can somehow make that mental transition to kind of view these threats instead as challenges, hard challenges, hard problems to solve, but still as problems that can potentially be solved through some sort of sensible step by step approach, then it can feel less overwhelming, less anxiety provoking, and if we have some resources to draw upon as individuals, as families, as communities, then we’re likely to be able to figure out how to solve those problems.