Bold ideas and critical thoughts on science.

Dispite the cruelty of the current situation, Agata Komendant-Brodowska calls for a more optimistic view on the side effects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Agata Komendant-Brodowska

Since covid-19 started to spread, I’ve reacted twofold. Of course, this is a huge crisis, so, on the one hand I’ve been worried, sad and scared. On the other hand, there are a lot of massive social processes happening right now in front of our eyes, almost in ‘fast forward’ mode, so I’ve also been observing what is happening as a researcher interested in social dynamics. And I feel that this sociological lense helps me see, apart from all terrible things happening right now, how we as social animals are capable to deal with many challenges in times of crisis. We are rapidly learning new things (e.g. a massive shift to online education), we are communicating in new ways (video calls with someone we had never called before in that manner), coping with new limitations, redefining work and family life (suddenly very close to each other). We are dealing with the new pandemic reality both on an individual and societal level and this makes me more hopeful.

Humans as social species

As a global community, we are learning now how thousands or millions of individual decisions can affect the whole society and this micro-to-macro link is something I’ve always been fascinated with. This link is often unintuitive and unexpected: people want to buy certain products before the others do and their behaviour – taken together – leads to a shortage that wouldn’t have occurred if they didn’t fear this shortage. Another individual decision, we have to consider right now – should we keep staying at home or not? From an individual point of view – especially for a young and healthy person – it’s not so risky to get infected. So, it could be considered reasonable not to stick to the social-distancing policy that much. But if all people in the non-vulnerable group act this way, this will lead to absolutely devastating consequences for the vulnerable group as e.g. elderly people who get infected, but cannot get proper treatment if lots of them approach the health system simultaneously. And this can lead to a collapse of healthcare system and other consequences felt by everyone, including the less-vulnerable group. We clearly have a conflict between individual perspective and social perspective (that affects all individuals, not only those at risk!). Currently, I’m preparing an online course as a part of the Action for Computational Thinking in Social Sciences (ACTiSS; an Erasmus+ project) – that introduces computational methods in order to illustrate, explore and better understand the conflict between individual and social rationality. One of the main topics is the analysis of situations where individuals strive for what seems better for them and as a result end up in a suboptimal outcome.

How do humans manage to find a solution when it comes to a conflict between the individual and the social perspective? As humans are a social species – they turn to amazing social devices that help resolving such issues. Rules are being created, systems of norms and sanctions. Edna Ullmann-Margalit (“Emergence of norms”, 1977) argued that these type of social situations are “calling” for social norms – that this is one of the basic types of social circumstances where new norms emerge (the other basic types are those related to coordination and hierarchy). And this is what we can see right now. What is probably most visible are the formal ones e.g. regulations introduced by governments and financial fines for going out during quarantine or lockdown. But more importantly, there are informal rules and norms and also informal sanctions. People posting at their social media photos with #stayathome hashtag are voluntarily promoting a new rule, encouraging others to follow their behaviour and here especially such behaviour of celebrities and different social leaders is very valuable. Next, let’s think about all the people calling their parents or grandparents to tell them off for going a shop for groceries (‘I could have gone there, I told you I would, I was going to bring you groceries tonight’) – this is an informal sanction, I’m not saying a very nice one but this is also a part of a social control system that is being created right now, as we speak, by millions of small individual actions. It’s very important that such social control systems are introduced by ourselves, bottom-up.

The power of bottom-up social control systems

Let’s just imagine for a second how many policemen, cars and surveillance would be needed in order to keep people at home if they all wanted to go out and felt this rule was imposed on them against their will. Seems almost impossible or at least very expensive, right? And scary, too. And now let’s imagine that all of those people still initially prefer to go out but decide to stay at home for different reasons. E.g. because they feel “this is what we should do right now” (they know it from media, neighbours and social media that this is better in the long run), because they feel convinced by what their friend told them, because it wouldn’t feel right to go out and meet friends if everyone is appealing to conform with the new rule: their friends, their mom, their boss etc. And they’re also helping each other out, e.g. start organising virtual calls instead of regular meetings. This doesn’t only sound nicer, but can also be more efficient.



There is, of course, some underlying research to this assumption. The economist and Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom studied how people self-organise to prevent overuse of resources. Her research showed that – opposed to a view that everything should either be private or governed by the state – people are actually able to create and sustain their own institutions to help govern common-pool resources such as fish stock and not overuse them. Bottom-up rules can be more important than the formal ones imposed from the top. If you don’t buy a ticket in the public transport – what do you fear more – the fine or the embarrassment of being caught free-riding in front of other passengers? Or maybe you always buy a ticket because it wouldn’t be fair to travel for free?

Frankly, this whole system of new informal rules supporting, following or even coming before the formal rules – that help us stick to painful limitations for the sake of others and in the long run, also for ourselves –  is something that I’m really happy about and really moved by and this makes me personally more hopeful.

Apart from that, another social invention – a support system – is being created and introduced with ads such as the one below appearing around us. Many people are also sharing their ideas how to cope with social isolation, organising online social meetings or free online dance classes.

Translation: “Dear Elderly Neighbours! If because of the corona outbreak you prefer to stay at home, please knock on the door of flat number 17. We will be happy to buy you groceries or go to the chemist’s (it’s easiest to catch us at home in the evenings but we are also there during the day).”

Why does it all make me hopeful? All these actions – sticking to the stay-at-home rule, giving up certain activities, promoting new rules, sanctioning those who don’t follow those norms, supporting each other – they all come at a cost. It takes time and effort. But we are actually social animals and we can spend that time and we are making this effort. All these activities taken together create a huge effect on a macro-level, they can protect us all, and they are living proof of how society works – how we can deal with challenges as a social species.

Currently, we are all learning how small decisions as cancelling a get together with friends preparing a meal at home instead of going out taken together can help us go through difficult times as a community. Not to mention how we are realising that we are really living in a global community right now. I’m not assuming that everything works out great at the moment – far from it – but I think that among a ton of bad news a bit of a more optimistic angle won’t hurt.