How do crises affect behaviour-from the Black Death to Covid-19

Hello, our lovely readers, 

As you’re reading this, we hope you are well, safe, calm, and last but not least, you washed your hands super recently!

With the recent COVID-19 pandemic, we couldn’t help but wonder…how does a crisis affect human behaviour and how can we rationalise it? Let’s have a look at it together, shall we?

Covid-19 has been often referred to as a “modern plague”. Although is completely different from the Black Death, taking a historical approach, it turns out that humans haven’t learnt much in terms of social consequences in times of a crisis, when compared to then and now. 

The first similarity we see is that a certain ethnic group was blamed for the outbreak and racism and xenophobia levels went up. It is said that the Black Death originated from China and spread to the Middle East, then to Europe via Italy, carried by rats on trading ships sailing from the Black Sea. Today, the news reported several physical and verbal attacks towards people with East Asian heritage, a drop in East Asian food sales, and people with East Asian-heritage being quarantined in hospitals, although they did not travel to any Asian countries in months. 

While we can’t blame racism on COVID-19, it seems like it acted as a catalyst for racism and xenophobia. 

The second similarity of human behaviour between the Black Death and the COVID-19 is the rise of misleading information, or “fake news”. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is pressing tech companies to take serious actions to take down fake news. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and TikTok claim to have taken steps to direct their users to look for coronavirus information to the WHO or local health organisations. 

In the 14th century, popular belief was that the bubonic plague spread (cause of the Black Death) was a result of divine punishment for committing sins. They, later on, found the real cause and a scientific explanation. Interestingly, many people this day believe that COVID-19 is also a divine punishment for our collective sins.

You must have heard by now that the sales for toilet paper went extremely high, up to a point where many stores are out of stock. Are you baffled by this behaviour and are you wondering WHY toilet paper in particular? Well, you thought you might do, so we prepared a perfectly reasonable explanation for you, from a psychological point of view. 

The first thing you have to understand is that crisis or no crisis, humans are overbuying in general. Second, as a result of losing control of the situation, combined with having no clear directions from the authorities and government, people may act irrationally.

But let’s try to rationalise it: you go to a store and see 10 people with their carts full of toilet paper. Especially because it is a product that you would buy anyway, you will most likely think that it is better to do it, now than later. 

Have a look at this video that explains social conformity. It is in our nature to tend to follow other people’s behaviour and actions without having a motive. As you can see in the video, people didn’t know why they were standing up, but they were copying each others’ behaviour without questioning it too much.

Right, so what do we do now? We strongly suggest to stay calm and decide: what are facts and what are fears? Please remember, you are stronger than your fears. Have empathy, help how you can, don’t overbuy, follow specialists’ orders, stay inside as much as possible, phone your loved ones 

We understand that not knowing what will happen is extremely frustrating, but this is one of the lessons we need to take from this situation: life is unpredictable. 

This is one of the things we stress at Behaviour Hackers: the invaluable importance of being flexible and be able to adapt to any situation. 

We will soon introduce to you our online courses and videos on how to interact in times of crisiswhy do we touch our face and tips on how to do it less, and so many more! 

Stay tuned!

Until next time! Stay safe and calm!

With so much 💗,

Behaviour Hackers Team

Published by IngridC

Co-Director and Head of Research @Behaviour Hackers

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