ESRI research shows ‘fear is most powerful predictor of behaviour’ in pandemic

The longer the pandemic goes on the more likely society will bear long-term “scarring” from its impact. That’s according to Professor Pete Lunn of the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

he founder and head of the behavioural research unit at the institute was speaking after the latest data compiled by the ESRI showed another sharp increase in worry about the virus, even before the new variant Omicron was discovered.

Asked about the extent of the long-term societal impact that could follow the pandemic, Prof Lunn said it is too early to tell what the outcome will be.

“That is a very, very difficult question to answer,” he said.

“There is both psychological and economic research that says if we go through a protracted period for long enough, where life has to change quite dramatically, whether that’s due to war or a major recession or a pandemic like this, then there is evidence that it does have a long-term effect. In academic literature we call that ‘scarring’ — where people refer to generations carrying the ‘scars’ of these events.”

Lunn says he doesn’t have “a crystal ball” to know “what those scars are going to be”, but said some could be positive in the long run.

Speaking about the latest ESRI research — which is separate to the Kantar poll results above — Prof Lunn said: “Our data shows the majority of people don’t want to go back to life as it was before the pandemic so some of it will be positive, but I’d say a lot of it could be negative and would count as that kind of scarring about how cautious it might make people, the degree to which it might make people less outgoing, and less ambitious and so on.

“But the truth is we don’t really know what those long-term effects are going to be yet. It is very hard to tell.”

The only thing Prof Lunn could say for sure is that the longer the pandemic continues, the more likely it is that “scarring” will take place.

“Without a doubt historical data does show us that the longer, larger incidents always have bigger, long-term impacts. So yes, the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that we will have these scarring effects.”

The ESRI’s most recent data also shows the public’s level of fear and anxiety is back at the same levels we saw in late spring.

“Worry has been falling all year until a few weeks ago when it started to increase again,” Prof Lunn said. 

The level of fear people report is “the most powerful predictor of behaviour” we have in the pandemic.

“It has been far more powerful than people’s age or gender or socioeconomic background. That basic psychological variable of how worried you are about the virus, how anxious it makes you feel, essentially is the most powerful driver of behaviour.”

He said fear started to creep in before the Omicron variant emerged. “The indication is it had already taken off. And now Omicron and the uncertainty around the variant is only going to add to that.”

On what caused an increase in people’s fear, he said emotion used to track case numbers “very, very closely” but now it is more closely linked to a new metric.

“It seems now to be more related to the number of hospitalisations. We can see that the biggest component of worry is actually people worrying about the health service.”

Other worries people have in relation to the virus are economic concerns as well as the health of loved ones, he said.

“People worry more about their family and friends than they do about themselves, which is kind of sensible in that most of the people we are talking to are not particularly vulnerable but almost everybody knows someone who is.”

Elsewhere, he said people’s “fatigue” is not back at the same level it was at in January.

“In general, across the year, people’s fatigue when it came to putting up with restrictions has actually fallen over time because people found they were substantially worse off under Level 5 restrictions, which they no longer have.

“So we haven’t yet seen that level of fatigue rise again and, although restrictions are being reintroduced and people’s worry is going back up, we haven’t seen that bleed through yet to any kind of fatigue or tiredness.”

The ESRI polling also shows people want more restrictions put in place in the run up to Christmas.

“We have now got to the point where, just before the Taoiseach’s last announcement, the majority of people were in favour of more restrictions. They wanted the Government to reintroduce some rules,” Prof Lunn said.

He said it doesn’t mean there is not “a substantial minority who are really opposed” to the same rules. But he said “the majority got to the point where they wanted the Government to do more and reintroduce restrictions and that is still true today. We find there is a far larger section of the population who want more government action, not less at the moment.

“I think what’s difficult about changing your behaviour is negotiating all of the social interactions and conversations you need to have and I think having some rules around how to do that is helpful.

“I think people worry about pulling out of a social situation and, when there are rules, it makes it easier to have those conversations. We worry an awful lot about how we are perceived and about letting other people down in the commitments we make.

“So in a way, when the Government is asking us to make changes, it is easier to have those conversations because it gives us something to refer to,” he added. 

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