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How people act in a polycrisis world
Multiple crises create fear and anxiety: whilst difficult this may also well be a springboard for people steps to navigate the new environment collectively
A wide range of issues are occupying the minds of people around the world. Perhaps little surprise given the range of connected crises we are experiencing, including cost of living, the war in Ukraine and global warming.
A term that is gaining ground as a means to describe this is polycrisis: interacting crises that result in harms greater than the sum that the crises would produce in isolation. This week we are looking at the implications of living in polycrisis world: first we consider three different sorts of psychological impacts and then we put the case that this can result in people seeking out each other, rather than the usual sources of expertise, to make sense of and develop strategies to navigate this turbulent environment.
1: Tipping points
Much has been reported on the way that we are close to reaching environmental tipping points with recent news suggesting that giant ice sheets, ocean currents and permafrost regions may already have passed point of irreversible change.
The notion of psychological tipping points is something we have touched on before and is useful to help us understand how people may be responding to the current situation. Work by people such as Seamus Power and Ed O’Brien suggest that we have points of reference we use to determine psychological tipping point. These are both points that we recall from the past but also what we might imagine for the future, allowing us to make comparisons and, as such, determine how things are for us right now.
Much of the time changes are of course slow and can be hard to spot but at certain points the comparison ‘tips over’ and becomes problematic. As O’Brien points out here:
“People subjectively diagnose tipping points (as opposed to passively responding to objective reality), a process that is shaped by individual and situational forces.”
Clearly then, the wider media discussion about environmental tipping points will have implications for the way we determine our own psychological tipping points, signalling to us when to be concerned. If people are now feeling as if multiple crises are impacting them significantly, we could be reaching a point of significant anxiety and concern about the world.
2: Existential anxiety
Of course, for many people the effects of the crises are being felt here and now: vast numbers of people have died, have chronic health conditions, been forced to migrate and suffered loss and significant impacts on their lives. And for many others in the population that have not been so directly affected, there are still anxieties, not only for their current lives, but for future generations.
Indeed, the philosopher Samuel Scheffler argues that, regardless of theological or other metaphysical beliefs, each of us is psychologically invested in the existence of an ‘afterlife’, in the sense of a world that will outlast us. In a thought experiment, he suggests that if we knew that the world was going to end the very moment we died, or (as in the storyline for the science fiction film 28 Days Later) that we were the final generation, then in theory this should not affect us (we will be dead after all).
However, Scheffler makes a convincing case that the fact there will be others succeeding us in the world, substantially contributes to making our own lives meaningful. The notion that our lives of those to come after us will be significantly changed for the worst is something that can be a great source of fear and anxiety.
Turning to the psychological literature, Lisa Zaval and colleagues have explored this in experimental work, finding that promoting peoples’ latent motivation to leave behind a positive legacy leads them to engage in behaviours that favour the well-being of future others.
3: Seeking control and mastery over our lives
In this environment of fear and anxiety, it is well known of course that we seek mastery and control over our lives. This response is something that Terror Management Theory (TMT) aims to describe, suggesting that our existential fears and anxieties (for ourselves and the future of our species) gives rise to an existential terror.
This terror is navigated by a buffering system to calm us, consisting of a range of activities but with one of them being to follow guidance from experts that can support us. Indeed, we saw this during COVID with the vast majority of the population following expert guidance for avoiding infection at the peak of the pandemic.
So with this in mind, what are the implications concerning how and where we look for guidance?
Work by Babak Hemmatian and Steve Sloman is helpful here. They set out the way we use intuitive default options for determining when we draw on those around us to provide guidance. Social norms is an obvious candidate here, providing helpful guidance on what makes sense to do, useful for settings where we ourselves have little or no knowledge but others do.
Of course, this works in stable and predictable situations where we can rely on the knowledge of what has gone before for us to build on. Neil Levy sets out the way in which as humans we live in a ‘cumulative culture’ in which our collective, shared knowledge has a type of a ‘ratchet effect’, with our collective knowledge becoming a shared platform on which others can build. In other words, we know that other people will know ‘what works,’ and we can then be guided by them, confident that their past learnings are something we can then simply adopt without scrutinising them particularly.
The challenge comes when we are in unchartered territory and we cannot necessarily rely on the past as a guide to what we should be doing now. In which case then effective outsourcing to those we have historically relied upon may lead us astray. Arguably we are increasingly in just such a place, with the uniqueness of the multiple crises facing us implying that we cannot rely too heavily on past data and learning to guide us. To quote historian Lorraine Dalston, we are perhaps in a time of radical novelty thrown back into a state of ‘ground zero empiricism’.
Hemmatian and Sloman suggest that in these situations we need to deliberate more carefully and rely less on our intuitive mechanisms of where to seek guidance. For example, people are more careful about domains of expertise they draw on, refining and fine-tuning the way in which we assess the effectiveness of advice from the usual sources.
However, they also point out that there is a great deal of evidence that human collaboration is essential for effective deliberation. In fact, surely this is what often sets us apart from other animals, our ability for understanding other minds and using this to efficiently work out what is needed and then perform joint tasks.
So perhaps this helps us to explain some of the behaviours we are seeing now, where instead of relying on authoritative institutions and established expertise, collective deliberation is being taken. If we look across different areas of concern, we can see these emerging, such as:
There is a huge and growing ‘prepper’ community worldwide, who take steps to prepare for the worst-case scenario with things such as medical supplies, food stocks and sometimes even a chemically-insulated, well-stocked isolated bunker. Some estimates suggest that there are up to 20 million people taking these steps in the US alone: a brief web search will take you to a wide collection of sites dedicated to connecting preppers and offering advice and guidance.
In response to concerns over increasing pollution of UK rivers, there has been a call by Angling clubs for their members to be by ‘citizen scientists’, testing their stretches of river for pollution using kits supplied by the Angling Trust. These will be used to challenge official estimates and campaign for better pollution controls.
A group called the North Atlantic Fellas Organization, a collective of social media users — has co-opted the “doge” meme as a way to humorously undermine Russian misinformation concerning the war in Ukraine alongside raising money for frontline Ukrainian troops. This is in contrast to way it is claimed that institutions in the West often response to Russian disinformation as boring reports or bland public statements.
These might be seen as examples of the way in which people are turning to each other to make sense of, but also to have agency and control in, a turbulent world.
Bringing this together, we can see that psychological tipping points are likely being reached where people cannot avoid the existential fears and anxieties caused by the polycrisis environment. We seek to assuage these existential anxieties by seeking out guidance on how to navigate and make sense of this changing world.
But the normal intuitive heuristics that we use to draw on for guidance are arguably in danger of becoming less relevant. This is clearly an issue for the institutions that we have historically relied on such as government agencies, public health bodies, employers and brands.
Of course we need more than ever a range of bodies to support the population in a wide variety of ways but at the same time people may become more selective about determining who holds the expertise and support that is relevant to them. There is a risk that familiar organisations and institutions are trusted but increasingly seen as less relevant for supporting in the complexities and difficulties of this new environment.
People do not of course then become passive but instead will look for others to help them deliberate, reflect on what to do, and then start to take action. This is a subtle change to Terror Management Theory, where the buffering system to manage ‘terror’ may now increasingly be collective sense-making, working together to develop much needed strategies for mastery and control of this changing world.
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