A bit of psychology. Why we all behave differently around COVID


A bit of psychology. Why we all behave differently around COVID



Hi everyone!

As restrictions from a significant, long lockdown in Victoria are easing; borders across Australia are opening up; preparations are being made for the opening of international borders; and it seems that Australia is getting control of the virus (as much as is likely to be possible), I am absolutely fascinated to see significant behavioural differences emerging across the community. Our ideas about what is – and what is not – acceptable behaviour, are vastly variable. Some of us are happy to hug our friends at the absolute first possibility; others continue to live life very cautiously and choose to remain socially distant at all times.

So why is that? What is the psychology behind these differences? And as a colleague, a leader, or simply a fellow human, how should you deal with these differences? Let’s start with what’s underpinning the differences:

Reason no 1: We have different levels of risk aversity
If you’re in a high-risk category, due to your health or your age for example, you are likely to be extra cautious. But for most of us, our emotional response to COVID will be significantly underpinned by how risk averse we are in general. Those of us who are at the highly risk averse end of the scale are likely to (continue to) avoid any situation in which we feel risk is increased; whilst those of us who are at the other end of risk aversion scale (risk seeking) might go as far as attending ‘COVID parties’. Of course, most of us won’t ‘sit’ at either end in the extreme, but where we do sit on that scale largely determines how comfortable we are with risk, and therefore how we behave.

Reason 2: Our different beliefs drive our behaviour
What we believe influences what we do. And when it comes to COVID, our beliefs are indeed diverse. We have different perceptions about the risks and the severity of the virus, and we are all influenced by our peers and the information that surrounds us. In a world awash with Social Media bubbles and algorithms, the variance in our information sources is significant. Combine that with one of the most significant psychological traps we all fall into, our confirmation bias (putting lots of weight into information that agrees with our opinions and very little in information that contradicts it) and suddenly, the significant differences in our beliefs – and therefore our behaviour – are not so surprising.

Reason 3: We have different levels of solution aversion
We learn fastest when we get immediate feedback. For example, if we hold our hand on a hot stove, our hand feels the burn (this is the feedback) and we learn not to do that again. COVID however, works very differently. The onset of symptoms is delayed; we can infect someone or become infected without realising it in that moment, or in some cases, at all. You can therefore comfortably walk around without a mask on, without seeing any (immediate) consequences. This absence of feedback makes it much easier for us to reject a potential reality that might make us uncomfortable.

Moreover, we have a tendency to ignore, resist or even deny a problem when we have an aversion to the solution. In psychology we call this: solution aversion. This means that if you, for example, are someone for whom gathering with lots of people is really important, but the ‘solution’ to the COVID problem involves avoiding those very circumstances, you are quite likely to ignore or minimise the COVID problem in your mind so that you can continue to gather with people; whereas people for whom gathering in groups is not so important are much less likely to ignore or minimise the COVID problem. How we feel about the solution shapes and changes our attitude towards the problem and becomes a powerful behavioural driver.

How to deal with differences in behaviour

  • As a colleague – or just as a fellow human: It’s easy to look at someone else’s behaviour and feel frustrated if it seems different from how we might approach things, but when it comes to COVID, it’s really important to understand that everybody is coping in a different way. Learning a little more about the psychology behind peoples’ behaviour – as we have just done – is an important step towards empathy. Having empathy in this environment is critically important and, contrary to popular belief, empathy is not something you either have or you don’t have – it is something you can develop. Try not to focus so much on what someone does; rather, try to get to the why instead. Avoid making assumptions about who is in a high-risk category and who isn’t, or how hard (or how easy) lockdown restrictions have been for someone else – the ways in which different people experience this environment is related to so many (often invisible) factors. Talk to each other! And start from a place of empathy.


  • As a leader: You’re likely to spot some differences in the behaviour of your team. Have a positive mindset about this – you can use this environment to create a real opportunity for change! This is the time to stop and assess current behaviours and to think about what the future of work might look like in the context of what will be optimal for both individuals as well as the team as a whole. Catch up with as many team members as you can to talk through their individual experiences. Start from a place of empathy, understand what drives their behaviour and uncover their wants and needs for the future. And please don’t fall into the trap of having a group conversation. This might feel efficient, but the reality is that you’ll be likely to hear from the few extraverts in the group disproportionately, whilst many others may choose not to engage at a meaningful level. Use everything you learn to plan for how you will, together with your team, shape the ways in which you will work and behave now and into the future.

If you’d like to chat work-redesign or anything else, please reach out on astrid@orangesquid.com.au! I’d love to hear from you.


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