Psychology in a Crisis (and check the sources)

«How can you design for people if you don’t know history and psychology? You can’t. Because your mathematical formulas may be perfect, but the people will screw it up. And if that happens, it means you screwed it up.»
Jack Thorne in «The Lost World» by Michael Crichton

A few days ago, someone I follow on Twitter pointed to this article:

Bavel, J. J. V., Baicker, K., Boggio, P. S., Capraro, V., Cichocka, A., Cikara, M., Crockett, M. J., Crum, A. J., Douglas, K. M., Druckman, J. N., Drury, J., Dube, O., Ellemers, N., Finkel, E. J., Fowler, J. H., Gelfand, M., Han, S., Haslam, S. A., Jetten, J., … Willer, R. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. Nature Human Behaviour, 4(5), 460–471.

And asked whether anyone would change their behavior or policy recommendations due to its recommendations. The article is relatively short and freely available, so you might want to check it out for yourself first.

Reading it, I’m taken aback by the state of psychology today.

On the one hand, I agree that psychology does have theories that can help people deal better with crises. I’m not talking about psychotherapy — and strangely enough, neither did the article — I’m talking about theories that help predict human behavior, finding the levers and screws to change peoples behaviors, or simply tipping the scales a bit so more beneficial outcomes are more likely (it’s a probabilistic science, after all). And the article does mention a few ways to do so (rather superficially), and if you don’t know them, they might be good to know. I also liked the suggestion of the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing”.

But on the other hand …

First, the article was … not very helpful. It does not make concrete recommendations, nor does it give you any help in checking whether the interventions actually work. It might be due to the last few years working in human-computer interaction and more concerned with evaluations than developing theories, but I find that looking at the concrete product, the concrete case, and finding out whether it works, is needed — no matter how good the theories are. And it’s a creative and iterative process that is very rewarding. After all, it would be a rather sad and scary world if we could (vastly) influence human behavior just due to a few theories.

Second, there were aspects of the paper that smacked of social justice, with issues like “Social inequality” or “Prejudice and discrimination” in the article. When it comes to “intimate relationships“, at least for the assertion of an increase in domestic violence, the source goes completely out of the window. Reading the rather hedged text “Indeed, some studies suggest that forced proximity is a risk factor for aggression231,232 and domestic violence233.” (“some studies suggest“) and checking the reference (233) leads to “233. Owen, L. Five ways the coronavirus is hitting women in Asia. BBC News (2020).”, a news article in which “rights activists” in China made some assertions. Mostly these are anecdotal stories and while they should be taken seriously, they are hardly a “study”. The closest thing (and that’s saying something) is: “Last week, Feng Yuan, the director of Beijing-based women’s rights nonprofit Weiping, said her organisation had received three times as many inquiries from victims than they did before quarantines were in place.” But if a student would come with this “source”, the first question would be “what else has changed”? It’s not only the quarantine — so how high are, e.g. the yearly variations? And is this actually applicable world-wide? Given the section ends with the usual grab for resources (“UN Women are also concerned about the possible diversion of resources with increased efforts to contain outbreaks.”), they also clearly have a conflict of interest. (Prediction: Other articles or news stories will use this article as source, making in harder and harder to get to the original, extremely weak, source.)

Third, where are the ethics? Assertions like: “Thus, focusing on worst-case scenarios, even if they are uncertain, may encourage people to make sacrifices for others.” and the usual references to nudging smack of manipulating the public. The goal might be good — most people want a good outcome of the pandemic — but it’s a very bad idea to use manipulation to achieve them. If you do not inform the public and trust them, you have already lost. You might survive the pandemic, but you lose the democracy.


I think psychology has a lot to offer, including getting accurate, i.e., objective, reliable and valid, data in difficult situations. This information might not be to everyone’s liking (and yeah, we know how to get biased data also), but you need accurate data as basis for decisions. At least, if you look at the situation, not an ideology. (That’s another can of worms, with politicians not wanting to let the crisis go to waste and trying to restructure the economy, push for gender quotas, or prohibit prostitution.)

And frankly, psychology is better than that.