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'The world has been transformed into a huge laboratory'

Last updated on: March 30, 2020 15:49 IST

'Hopefully, people will understand that, beyond medical vaccination plans, in the future we will also need to implement some 'social inoculation' plans.'

IMAGE: A lone tourist poses in front of an empty St Peter's Square a day after the Vatican closed the square and the Basilica due to coronavirus concerns. Photograph: Reuters

Giuseppe Pantaleo, PhD, is professor of social psychology at the faculty of psychology, Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, Milan, Italy.

He is also the director of UniSR-Social.Lab (which counts among its staff Simona Sciara, Elena Resta, Federico Contu, Veronica Pirola and Matteo Soldi), the laboratory of social psychology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University.

He graduated under the direction of Professor Luciano Arcuri (University of Padua, Italy), and specialised under the supervision of Robert A Wicklund (University of Bielefeld, Germany).

Together, Dr Wicklund and Dr Pantaleo authored the theory of multiple perspectives (Wicklund, 1999; Pantaleo, 1997; Pantaleo & Wicklund, 2000).

In an interview with Senior Contributor Sheela Bhatt, Professor Pantaleo, below, says, "It is exactly at this psychological junction that the behaviour of role models will become particularly influential. If role models (group leaders, opinion leaders, social influencers) act wisely, identifiers will, on the average, follow those virtuous behaviours. If, by contrast, role models implement risky behaviours, identifiers will also follow them through the risky route."

Dear professor, first and foremost please accept my deepest condolences over the deaths of Italians due to the coronavirus.
Not just as a scholar but also as a citizen of Italy would you share your experiences of the last few weeks?

Thank you very much for giving me the possibility to report and reflect on this crisis, both from a personal and professional psycho-social point of view.

I am glad to accept and share with you the experience of the last few weeks, as I think that sharing common experiences and mutually learning from those experiences, in general, is of paramount importance for everyone on planet Earth, especially now, in these coronavirus days.

We, humans, have a lot to learn from each other. The whole world has been suddenly transformed into a huge living laboratory, both at a biomedical and social-psychological level.

As social scientists -- in particular, as professional social psychologists -- the majority of us is accustomed to running experiments in our private, institutional laboratory. We normally do so, mostly by modelling peoples's emotional, mental, and behavioural responses to specific and carefully pre-selected stimuli, in order to evaluate the immediate and extended effects of those stimuli.

We generally deal, for instance, with broad research questions such as, How will people react to specific threats in crisis situations? To what extent, and why, will they be able to cope with emergencies? Who, and why, will lose or keep control? Who, and why, will flourish again after the emergency? What psychological processes are at work in certain situations? And so on.

In these days, social-psychological theories are called to action.

As odd as it may seem in times of crisis, 'there is nothing so practical as a good theory', as once affirmed by the late Professor Kurt Lewin, unanimously considered one of the founding fathers of the discipline, with respect to the enormous predictive and explanatory power of well-formulated theories.

This turns out to be particularly true today. More than ever, we need reliable predictive, interpretative, and explanatory models.

The entire world, not only Italy, has suddenly turned into a huge biomedical and social laboratory, in which our theories, models, and predictions -- very practical tools -- are automatically tested, whether we want it or not, and pitted one against the other.

Both as an academic and as a citizen, thus, my gaze is now on the entire world -- it is no longer confined to any specific national reality, or laboratory.

Of course, I am deeply touched by what is rapidly and simultaneously happening everywhere on the planet, including India, of course.

Beyond the actual medical help, how is society coping with pandemic at the mental level?

Overall, Italians are reacting fairly well, as most of them understood the importance to comply with social distancing and other medical measures and advice.

Social-psychological reactions are mainly twofold, however.

We witness what we call a 'polarisation' of attitudes, emotions, and behaviours.

On the one hand, people tend to react with puns, irony, jokes, even sarcasm -- this was especially true at the very beginning of the epidemic, when the infectious disease was still not pandemic.

On the other hand, people are also starting to progressively manifest, quite overtly, their hidden anxieties, and also the fears originally underlying those former reactions, this leading, in turn, to certain mental and behavioural rigidities -- that is, to some characteristic psychological reactions, already known to most of our social-psychological theories and explanatory models.

What kind of unusual trends are you noticing in people in this unimaginable crisis?

In a sense, and very sadly, from a clinical and social-psychological point of view, it was all quite predictable from the very beginning of the outbreak; thus, for epidemiologists and social scientists there are no true unusual trends in this respect, actually.

We simply see, and are sadly forced to contemplate, many of our former theoretical predictions at work -- this time, outside of our labs.

In contrast to this, many citizens still seem to struggle to interpret such 'exaggerated' emotional, mental and behavioural reactions either in themselves or in other fellow residents.

Some of them are getting lost. Others resist.

In my opinion, we would need more reliable and trustworthy social psychological guidance, as well as clinical psychological advice when required.

Such indications should be imparted to the population through recognised academics, professionals, and official, non-improvised scholars.

We should definitely avoid the uncertain advice given by some self-invented, semi-professional, and 'would-be experts' -- or by the even more dubious figures who, unfortunately, have their say on TVs, newspapers, and other social media right in these days.

We need firm, evidence-based, informed, and consequent scientific knowledge to be put at work, institutionally.

We, as human societies inhabiting the planet, should focus and capitalise on the already existing bio-clinical, clinical, and social-psychological bunch of expertise -- the official one, of course.

How is the government enforcing social distancing? How is social distancing impacting mental health?

Social distancing is enforced through increasingly restricting legislative decrees. This provokes, quite obviously, severe restrictions on people’s freedoms to behave as they usually did.

When freedoms are abruptly limited, the very first psychological reactions take the form of motivated attempts at restoring those freedoms; this occurs in proportion to a. The violated expectations of freedom; b. The (subjective) importance of those freedoms and, paradoxically, c. The difficulty of enacting the newly forbidden behaviours.

So, the stronger the expectation of 'having the right to think and behave freely', the higher the importance we attribute to 'behaving freely' and -- paradoxically -- the stronger the difficulties of enacting those freedom-reinstating behaviours, the stronger will be the outcome motivation to transgress governments's prescriptions and necessary enforcing of restrictive rules.

These are exactly the basic predictions -- with some later adjustment and integration, of course -- brought about by the theory of psychological reactance, a theory proposed in 1966 by the late social psychologist Jack Williams Brehm.

When all of the above happens, then we experience 'reactance' -- a motivation to restore freedom.

We now systematically witness such an impulse (reactance) either in ourselves or in the broader societal context, especially now that such restrictions to individual freedom have been made compulsory by law.

We should keep in mind, however, that reactance is just the end result of a psychological process. That is, reactance is a motivation, an impulse, an urge.

As many other social motivations, impulses, and urges, if properly controlled and readdressed, reactance does not need to result, necessarily, in overt violation of constructive social behaviours and common norms.

As to the impact of enforcing social distancing on mental health, finally, there are no sufficient official data as yet. Any projection would therefore be hazardous.

When did isolation start in Italy and how long will it continue? What will be its long term impact on your society?

The isolation started officially in Italy towards the end of February 2020, in specific and circumscribed areas of Lombardy, deemed as the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic in our country.

Then, at the beginning of March, a partial lockdown was implemented to further regions of northern Italy and, eventually, a total lockdown -- for the whole country -- was decided on March 9.

How long it will continue, nobody knows, for the moment.

As to the long term impact of isolation on our society, things are less clear. Hopefully, people will understand that, beyond medical vaccination plans, in the future we will also need to implement some 'social inoculation' plans, in the form of a truly renewed civic education.

To the extent that people have active and protected first-hand experiences with multiple realities, perspectives, and social circumstances and points of view -- even contrasting points of view -- they will be better equipped, in the future, to face crisis and resist several types of threat, also from a psychological point of view.

By contrast, a scanty background in multiple social perspectives will leave people incapable to resist the 'polarisation' of attitudes, emotions, and behaviours we talked about at the outset of this interview.

It is the richness of our internalised social repertoires, the capacity to reproduce those social repertoires when needed, that makes us unique human beings and part of a whole at the same time, as well as psychologically strong and equilibrated actors in our social relationships and exchange.

Once again, this instantiates the prediction of another social-psychological theory, the theory of multiple perspectives (Wicklund, 1999; Pantaleo, 1997; Pantaleo & Wicklund, 2000) -- a forecast about human mental, emotional, and motivational processes and behaviours that has already received support both in the laboratory and in some experimental field studies. And whose explanatory power is being tested out of our laboratories right now, because of the very spreading of the pandemic in these days.

Part 2: Coronavirus: 'My main worry relates to the possibility of social collapse'