What place for scientific psychology in the Covid-19 pandemic? – Afis Science

How do humans behave during an epidemic? Simple question, the answer to which will determine the course of the disease and the steps to be taken to limit the damage. Especially since the enemy is now identified: they are pathogens that exploit complex living organisms as reservoirs, vehicles and transmitters. Bacteria, fungi, parasites, protozoa, viruses and prions have always been a threat, capitalizing on our lifestyles, our interactions, our behaviors, our social structures. Through the indiscriminate operation of natural selection, some find themselves better suited to our habits, allowing them to survive and proliferate, regardless, of course, for our own interests.

Against them, we have our acquired knowledge, our reason and our ability to adapt our behavior. We can find remedies and change our attitudes, bypass the parasitic logic by isolation, protection, mistrust or caution, unite by our strength of solidarity and empathy which makes us sensitive to the fate of our loved ones . It's not nothing ! It is no more and no less than a centuries-old struggle to safeguard our very existence. A fight that is basically based on the knowledge we have of our own species. Is this knowledge being put to good use?

Unfortunately, it seems that the issue has not been resolved.

Has our behavior changed over the centuries?

160 comportement 01 2 - What place for scientific psychology in the Covid-19 pandemic? - Afis Science
The Doge goes to the Salute
commemorate the end of the plague of 1630,

Francesco Guardi (1712-1793)

The evolution of the Covid-19 pandemic, as it unfolded globally from December 2019 to June 2020, sheds a worrying light on our level of preparedness and our ability to face, collectively, a threat after all. predictable, as our history is marked by similar episodes. In The Peloponnesian War (1), Thucydides already reported the irrational reactions during the "plague" which struck Athens from 430 to 427 before our era: disorderly panics, collective prayers, fanciful accusations, overwhelmed doctors, flagrant inequalities, gratuitous prophecies … Two thousand years later, reconstructing the London plague of 1665, Daniel Defoe described the same behaviors, highlighting political quarrels, the rise of magical thought, general despair, but also the remarkable courage and altruism of each other (2 ).

Have we really progressed since these tragic historical episodes? The time is not yet to take stock, and it is a safe bet that this crisis of the new coronavirus still holds many surprises and twists and turns. But a quick overview of recent events hardly encourages optimism: from the start, there has been a proliferation of dubious "remedies", improvised "experts", peremptory prophecies, the most absurd conspiracy theories, risky and irrational, the politicization of science, the polarization of opinions, in short, a diffuse confusion that the World Health Organization has called "infodemic", even before declaring the state of pandemic.

But let us draw attention here to a perhaps deeper problem, and in an even more embarrassing sense. What does this crisis tell us about the state of expertise real ? We would like, more than ever, to be able to rely on the most solid knowledge, the best established facts, the most reliable voices. In particular, in addition to our medical and health knowledge, one would think that the considerable amount of knowledge acquired on cognition and human behavior could come to our aid in a situation such as ours. After all, the outcome of an epidemic largely depends on the individual and collective behavior of a population, the decisions and affects of each, shared or rejected beliefs, everyday micro-gestures, such as washing hands, keep away from others, stay at home as much as possible, avoid gatherings, follow official recommendations, think about vulnerable people … In other words, the evolution of an epidemic finds part of its explanations as well in psychological factors specific to individuals, which determine their behavior, than in biological factors linked to the structure and mechanisms of the virus itself.

160 comportement 02 2 - What place for scientific psychology in the Covid-19 pandemic? - Afis Science
Explosion of fear,
Paul Klee (1879-1940)

However, the least that can be said is that psychological science, like many other fields, is yet another victim of Covid-19. I write it all the more bitterly since this discipline is my main professional activity, that I have devoted my career to it, and that it constitutes an essential basis for the exercise of critical thinking, since it details our biases, our weaknesses, our illusions and our mistakes. What good has all this research been for if it is not able to reliably inform and guide us when we really need it? It is the bitter debate that is agitating the behavioral science community right now, and psychology in particular.

Behavioral science challenged by the epidemic

Let us outline here the main lines of this controversy sufficiently rich in information to interest researchers in other disciplines as well as the public in general, as it sheds light on our limits in the face of a collective and invisible danger. This is the story of a debacle, a frenzy and open conflict.

The debacle is sarcastically documented by British psychologist Stuart Ritchie (3). He notes that as of February 2020, the biggest names in reasoning psychology, considered paragons of critical thinking and specialists in cognitive biases, jostled each other to denounce what, according to them, was a irrational alarmism. David DeSteno, Paul Slovic, Cass Sunstein and Gerd Gigerenzer, true stars of the study of risk perception and irrational beliefs, all published columns or gave interviews where they lamented that fear so easily trumps fear. reason (with titles such as "The cognitive biases that make us panic in the face of the coronavirus" (4), "How fear distorts our thinking on the coronavirus" (5), "Coronavirus: the illustration of all our inability to assess the risks " 1(6)). The numbers, they were saying at the time, show that we clearly overestimate the danger. We would be victims of our "neglect of probabilities" and "representativeness bias", among others, which lead us to take drastic measures and worry excessively because, simply, we give too much credit to bad news and we ignore the immense chances of never catching this unfortunate virus of which so much is made. Naturally, compulsive buying behavior and the shortage of certain foodstuffs were the ideal illustration of such a lack of understanding of probabilistic reasoning, although the part of the rational and the irrational is not always easy to determine in certain circumstances. also unpublished (7).

Of course, it didn't take long for what happened next to prove those who demanded a return to sanity wrong, which led to a rather amusing shift in perspective: now, instead of overestimating it, we had suddenly become blind to danger. And they are sometimes the same ones who have taken up the pen this time, to warn us against "optimism bias", "confirmation bias" and "exponential growth bias" (8)! Far from being inclined to overestimate the risks of the coronavirus and neglect the chances of surviving it, the human brain is now pre-wired to make us succumb to an imminent and underhand threat. With an asymptomatic incubation period of up to two weeks (9), the virus can spread multiplically without our knowledge: during this time, our cognition would persuade us that this does not concern us, would lead us to confirming information. this optimism and would hide from us the magnitude of the disaster that is looming in the short term and in the longer term. What is more, a mechanism of "psychological reactance" (see box) could lead some to deliberately transgress the deprivations of liberty that the authorities claim to impose, hence the scenes of irresponsible behavior of crowds who have apparently forgotten that they completely overestimate the risks a few days ago.

The impression that emerges from these positions is that there is always a psychological phenomenon available to serve as an explanation for any situation, and that the behavior of individuals is essentially explained by these biases. reasoning. Of course, these reversals can possibly be explained by a dynamic evolution of the situation, itself reflected by changes in the discourse of the authorities and the media coverage, passing in a few days from an epidemic affecting mainly China and isolated cases. to a pandemic where everyone must be confined and where the number of deaths is the subject of a detailed count in each newsletter. From this point of view, it is possible that many people have indeed tended to underestimate (then overestimate) not the real risk (not well known), but the messages issued. But in this case, the explanation in terms of cognitive biases only sheds light on the situation and is superficial, and in no way constitutes one of its main determinants.

The "coronavirus bias"

Neglect of probabilities. When a danger and its negative consequences are present in mind, the probability of its occurrence tends to be overstated. The idea of ​​"catching the coronavirus" therefore outweighs the slim chances of actually catching it, and the fear induced is equal to or even greater than what one would feel if one were certain to catch it.

Bias of representativeness. An event (or its chances of affecting us) is evaluated on the basis of our ability to represent it to us mentally, according to the analogies that come to mind. Close to availability bias (something is considered more likely if one has already heard of it), "representativeness" induces errors in risk assessment insofar as it makes "the worst" salient and devalues ​​the possibilities. which are not as striking.

Exponential growth bias. The outcome of an exponential phenomenon is underestimated because it is anticipated in a linear fashion. An epidemic is typically exponential (at least in the first phase of its development): if an individual infects three others, then these three each contaminate three others, and so on, our mental representation of this development tends to grossly underestimate the rapidity of its development, and consequently leads us to react too late.

Optimism bias. We believe that a negative event is less likely to happen to us than to others. This asymmetry increases personal risk-taking, as we believe ourselves to be unduly immune from the consequences that would strike others for the same behavior. The idea that the coronavirus is primarily a danger to others can lead to non-compliance with health and safety guidelines.

Confirmation bias. A belief is protected by the perception, selection and preferential memorization of information that confirms it, to the detriment of that which disproves it. A preconceived idea about the coronavirus, its effects and measures to contain it may thus grow stronger as we pay attention to it, and neglect what is wrong with it.

Psychological reactance. The unpleasant feeling of being deprived of our autonomy when decisions that affect us are made for us (even if they are decisions that we would have made ourselves), and the ensuing adoption of behavior contrary to these decisions. Reactance can give rise to paradoxical attitudes where individuals make choices that they themselves deem inappropriate, dangerous or irrational, with the sole aim of reasserting their freedom to act.

Of course, these are mere expert "opinions" which always run the risk of being wrong. Does this really have any consequences? The British example suggests so. Supported by the recommendations of its experts from the Behavioral Insights Team (10), a team of psychology and behavior specialists also called the Nudge Unit 2, the Johnson government initially opted for a controversial strategy based on the idea of ​​"herd immunity" (herd immunity). In the context of Covid-19, the term was popularized by David Halpern, psychologist and director of this unit dedicated to providing advice on the basis of the most advanced behavioral sciences.

The same Halpern rose to fame for promoting the benefits of late confinement: starting too early could lead to "behavioral fatigue" such that by the time of the epidemic peak people would no longer follow safety instructions. It was better to let the virus run as long as possible and impose strict measures when they were absolutely necessary (the idea, as we have seen, did not have the expected success). A column signed by more than 600 psychologists and experts (11) demanded to know more about the scientific basis of this strange and new concept of "behavioral fatigue". It turned out that the government-appointed "expert" psychologists were only giving their opinion, largely improvised and based on obscure intuitions, rather than relying on the best scientific data and evidence …

Knowledge still too theoretical

160 comportement 03 2 - What place for scientific psychology in the Covid-19 pandemic? - Afis Science
Crowd in Sucre, Bolivia,
Roger Mathieu (1920-1992)

So much for the debacle. Despite thousands of research and departments devoted entirely to the study of human psychology, human psychology's contribution to the explanation and management of the pandemic has so far been disappointing to say the least. And this especially since psychology, of course, has very relevant resources to help us understand our paradoxical behaviors and put in place effective measures. But these resources still seem to be confined to a theoretical and abstract level. Witness the frenzy of research on the psychology of Covid-19 which is currently overwhelming the discipline. To date, there are nearly 300 published or pre-published studies, and at least as many in preparation and in progress on this single subject (a list is available, regularly updated by Moin Syed, of the University of Minnesota (12)). They relate to the emotional effects of confinement, the variables influencing compliance with health standards, the political factors of distancing, the predictors of the acceptance of a possible vaccine, the role of empathy in information campaigns of public health, the perception of people wearing a mask, the cognitive benefits of teleworking, the intercultural and socio-economic differences in the face of the crisis, and even the impact of finger length on the understanding of Covid-19 … Quantity of subjects certainly interesting, but which again give a strong impression of improvisation, even of a certain opportunism.

This is in fact unheard of, and one can wonder about the sudden priority given to this unique object of research. This is understandable for the medical and possibly economic sciences, given the urgency of the situation and its catastrophic consequences. But why are psychologists, who you would think they are supposed to know already enough about human behavior to prepare us for crisis situations, are they acting en masse as if we had to start all over again in the current crisis? There are undoubtedly several explanations.

Some take the opportunity to test (quickly) a particular theory, others are forced by circumstances to deviate from their usual research topic, and still others hope to influence the debates with their new findings. Either way, this frenzy of research almost immediately gave rise to internal bickering that is now manifesting itself in the form of open conflict.

A discipline in internal conflict

The clearest illustration of this conflict can be found in a parallel frenzy of publications, this time focusing not on the psychology of Covid-19 as such, but precisely on the role that behavioral sciences have to play in this crisis. The opposition crystallizes between, on the one hand, researchers who defend the importance of psychological knowledge and claim the solidity of this knowledge to intervene in the public sphere (13) and, on the other hand, researchers who on the contrary call for more humility and decree that psychology is not only powerless to guide us in such serious circumstances, but that it would even be dangerous for it to do so (14).

The substance of this debate is not new, it rests on what has been called the "replicability crisis" in psychology (15). Over the past decade or so, it has become clear that many of the influential and classic findings of modern psychology were, at best, unreliable experimental artefacts, at worst the result of deliberate fraud (see the 'Research misconduct' page of the American Psychological Association (16)). A long tradition in experimental psychology is to deliver definitive judgments and lessons about human nature based on lab studies done on small samples of mostly North American students. Not only do many of these results not resist replication with larger samples and under increased control conditions, they also prove impossible to generalize to other populations, and ineffective when seeking to apply them to other populations. large scale in real life. Why, then, should we trust psychology in an emergency where thousands of lives are at stake, let alone the dire economic fallout?

Hans Ijzerman, from Grenoble Alpes University, and other psychologists who share his point of view, are very clear on this point. Taking the example of NASA's technological application criteria, which provide nine levels of “readiness” to judge whether an innovation should be considered “ready to use” (17), these researchers judge (18) that psychology rarely goes beyond the first level, that is, the level where a problem, mechanism or effect has simply been identified and defined. From there to making it a law ready to be applied to limit the damage of a globalized virus, there would still be eight levels of tests, evaluations, comparisons and scenarios to go through, which are hardly ever carried out. in psychology …

For a reasoned use of behavioral psychology

Perhaps these are just the games of influence inherent in each discipline, quarrels of experts without much interest in the real problems which we must, one way or another, face. And of course, this is not to say, for all parties involved, that psychology is a pseudoscience that is never used for nothing! On the contrary, our knowledge of mind and behavior is more valuable than ever in helping us distinguish right from wrong. Scientific psychology will always be the ally of critical thinking, but it is precisely for this reason that it must constantly question its possibilities and limits. It cannot on its own claim to provide a complete explanation grid. In particular, a situation like this pandemic should warn us against the excessive and automatic use of our knowledge, such as that of classic reasoning biases, to explain the behavior of “people”, but also to make researchers think about priorities and in the sense of their investigations, as well as their responsibilities in the way their results are presented to the public, and possibly applied in real life.

As often, it is in an emergency situation that our blind spots, our differences and our assumptions reveal themselves, all obstacles that viruses do not know. As such, and probably for a long time to come, it may be good to keep in mind that our worst enemies often know us much better than we know ourselves.


1 | Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, book II, chapters 47 to 54.
2 | Defoe D, Journal of the Year of the Plague, 1722.
3 | Ritchie S, “Don’t Trust the Psychologists on Coronavirus,” UnHerd, May 31, 2020.
4 | Sunstein CR, “The Cognitive Bias That Makes Us Panic About Coronavirus,” Bloomberg, February 28, 2020.
5 | DeSteno D, “How Fear Distorts Our Thinking About the Coronavirus”, The New York Times, February 11, 2020.
6 | Fisher M, “Coronavirus‘ Hits All the Hot Buttons’ for How We Misjudge Risk ”, The New York Times, February 13, 2020.
7 | Luscombe B, “Why Overreacting to the Threat of the Coronavirus May Be Rational”, Time, March 11, 2020.
8 | Kunreuther H, Slovic P, “What the Coronavirus Curve Teaches Us About Climate Change”, Politico, March 26, 2020.
9 | WHO, “Coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19): questions and answers”, accessed June 4, 2020.
10 | Hutton R, “Keep Calm and Wash Your Hands: Britain’s Strategy to Beat Virus,” Bloomberg, March 11, 2020.
11 | Hahn U et al., “Why a Group of Behavioral Scientists Penned an Open Letter to the U.K. Government Questioning Its Coronavirus Response”, Behavioral Scientist, March 16, 2020.
12 | Psychology of COVID-19 Preprint Tracker.
13 | Van Bavel JJ et al., “Using Social and Behavioral Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response”, Nature Human Behavior, 2020, 4: 460-71.
14 | Ijzerman H et al., “Psychological Science is Not Yet a CrisisReady Discipline”, PsyArXiv Preprints, April 27, 2020.
15 | Klein RA et al., “Investigating variation in replicability”, Social Psychology, 2014, 45: 142-52.
16 | “Research misconduct”, American Psychological Association, at apa.org
17 | NASA, “Technology Readiness Level”, 2012, on go.nasa.gov
18 | Lewis Jr N, “How many (and whose) lives would you bet on your theory?”, The Hardest Science, May 1, 2020.

Government nudge units

It was in the United Kingdom, in 2010, that the first nudge unit tasked with supporting the various government services was created. Entitled Behavioral Insights Team (1), it is involved in various subjects (improving the collection of taxes and fines, reducing medical prescription errors, encouraging the donation of a day's salary to a charity, incentive to carry out work energy efficiency, etc.). Its services were partially privatized in 2014. In the United States, it was in September 2015 that President Obama officially set up 3 the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team with the stated objective of providing support for this discipline for the implementation and improvement of federal programs: "Effective and efficient government must (…) reflect our best understanding of human behavior – how people engage with, participate in and respond to policies and programs" (2). With the arrival of President Trump, the activity of this team died out. In France, President Macron, who had recourse during his electoral campaign to the advice of the nudge unit of the company BVA (3), set up in March 2018 a nudge unit à la française within the Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation (4). Its objective is to "Build on knowledge in behavioral sciences to improve the effectiveness of public policies". For the management of the coronavirus crisis, this team relied on that of the company BVA to advise the government (3).
1 | Behavioral Insights Team website before its partial privatization. On www.gov.uk
2 | Site of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (site frozen in 2017). On sbst.gov
3 | Woessner G, "Emmanuel Macron and the power of the 'nudge'", Point, June 4, 2020.
4 | "Behavioral sciences at the service of public transformation". On modernization.gouv.fr

1 Translation by us.

2 With reference to the theory of nudges("Nudges"), proposed by Sunstein and Thaler, that it is possible to change people's behavior in a predictable way, without restricting or forcing them in their choices.

3 In fact, since 2009 President Obama has relied on the advice of a team led by Cass Sunstein.

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