OPINION: The shifting blame of the coronavirus pandemic

The self-serving bias means we interpret the world to make ourselves and our decisions look good

The coronavirus pandemic is like nothing else experienced in our lifetime. It’s brought out the best of us, it’s brought out the worst of us, and it’s brought out the most judgmental in us.

Right from the start, blame began to be attached to groups of people who could be vilified in the press, on social media, held up as the scourge of society and help the rest of us feel better about ourselves.

Blunham resident and psychology lecturer at the Open University, Volker Patent, told the Bedford Independent, “How people perceive themselves in contrast to others differs greatly.

“The term in psychology is the Self-Serving Bias – we tend to interpret the world in a way that makes us look good, therefore if something goes wrong, we can attribute it to other people.

“If we do make a mistake, we can attribute it to the situation.”

First up, we had the hoarders.

In March, it became apparent that, in times of global hysteria, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs essentially consisted of toilet paper, tinned tomatoes, pasta, and yeast.

People might not have actually seen others bulk buying themselves, but photos of empty supermarket shelves flooding social media, provided the evidence needed to lay the blame squarely at anyone spotted buying bog roll.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The hoarders claimed the blame game limelight for the early weeks of the pandemic, as supply chains and supermarkets adapted to huge swathes of the population now needing to feed their entire families three meals a day, plus countless snacks.

“People have a need to understand a situation,” explains Volker.

“If you’ve been inconvenienced – because you can’t buy something you’ve run out of – it creates fear and anxiety.

“People who didn’t panic buy toilet paper, or didn’t go to the beach, or didn’t leave litter are watching other people getting away with it and there’s a perceived injustice.

“An easy way to explain that fear is to blame others for creating it.”

According to Steven Taylor, author of The Psychology of Pandemics, many of the behaviours aren’t new.

In 1918, the Spanish Flu killed almost 230,000 UK residents and also sent panicked citizens to stores and pharmacies to hoard goods.

Quoted in the South China Morning Post, he said: “People feel the need to do something to keep themselves and their family safe, because what else can they do apart from wash their hands and self-isolate?”

It wasn’t long, however, before the focus of blame shifted.

Once lockdown was in place from 23 March, over-zealous exercisers suddenly felt the wrath of curtain-twitchers up and down the country.

Coronavirus public parks sign
Bedford is an area that is considered at high-risk of a second local lockdown.

Anyone perceived by neighbours to be leaving their houses too frequently, dressed in athleisure gear, could face being instantaneously named and shamed on social media.

Soon, the whole nation needed something meaningful to celebrate, and the 75th anniversary of VE Day came along at just the right time in early May.

Of course, this wonderful nationwide outpouring of gratitude couldn’t go un-judged.

‘VE Day congas’ are now synonymous with the first breakdown of social distancing, with the Secret Barrister tweeting: “This appears to amount to a clear breach of the regulations.

“Unless anybody has any suggestions as to how “Performing the conga” might be said to amount to a reasonable excuse for leaving the house … we are a nation of idiots.”

How naïve that looks now, with the hindsight and knowledge that thousands of people would be descending on the nation’s beaches, just weeks later.

Over the following weeks, protesters, statue-protectors, beach-goers, pubbers, clubbers, Primark-queuers and non-mask wearers would all be blamed for flouting the rules.

Read: Customer safety “top priority” as Bedford pubs reopen

Simultaneously, libertarians are claiming it is their civil duty not to comply, playing into New World Order theories that the global elite are controlling the world’s media.

This in turn could dangerously jeopardise mass vaccination, with a growing denial of community responsibility, exacerbated by the actions of authority figures including Dominic Cummings.

Read: OPINION: When it comes to Cummings – the media fails

The tacit responsibility to those around us, especially the elderly, to those with autoimmune disorders, to the chronically ill is shunned by libertarians with the belief that there is nothing more sacred than their individualism.

“Public behaviour is absolutely crucial in the public health campaign against coronavirus, but adherence to the guidance depends critically on trust in the government’s competence and messaging,” says John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sussex.

“Unfortunately, that trust has declined lately.

“To then blame members of the public who are perceived to be failing to adhere to the public health measures (distancing, staying at home etc.) distracts from the fact that the government needs to work much harder to re-build its relationship with the public.”

“We blame people so readily and we’ve all done it at some point,” adds Volker. “We need to own it and realise that blaming doesn’t get us anywhere.

“Blaming is living in the problem and doesn’t solve it. The way to get away from blame is to focus on a solution.

“We need to bring people together and take this opportunity to build communities that are stronger, not rebuild what we had before.

“We need to create a society where people aren’t isolated, so they support each other and no longer need a scapegoat.”

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