We are in a crisis now, and omicron has made it harder to imagine the end of the pandemic. But it won’t last forever. When the COVID outbreak is over, what do we want the world to be like?
In the early stages of the pandemic, from March to July 2020, a rapid return to normalcy was on everyone’s lips, reflecting the hope that the virus can be quickly brought under control. Since then, alternative slogans such as “rebuild betterThey have also become prominent, promising a brighter, more equitable and more sustainable future based on significant or even radical change.
Going back to the way things were or moving on to something new are very different wishes. But what do people want? In our recent research, our goal was to find out.
Together with Keri Facer from the University of Bristol, we conducted two studies, one in the summer of 2020 and the other a year later. In them, we presented the participants, a representative sample of 400 people from the UK and 600 from the US, four possible futures, outlined in the table below. We designed them based on the possible outcomes of the pandemic published in early 2020 in The Atlantic Y The conversation.
We were concerned about two aspects of the future: whether it would imply a “return to normalcy” or a progressive movement to “rebuild better,” and whether it would concentrate power in the hands of the government or return power to individuals.
Four possible futures
|Back to normal – strong government
|Return to normality – individual autonomy
|Progressive – strong government
“A fairer future”
|Progressive – individual autonomy
In both studies and in both countries, we found that people strongly preferred a progressive future to a return to normalcy. They also tended to prefer individual autonomy to strong government.
Overall, in both experiments and in both countries, the “grassroots leadership” approach appeared to be the most popular.
People’s political leanings affected preferences (those on the political right preferred a return to normalcy more than those on the left); however, curiously, the strong opposition to a progressive future was quite limited, even among people on the right. This is encouraging because it suggests that opposition to “rebuild better” may be limited.
Our findings are consistent with other recent research, suggesting that even conservative voters want the environment to be at the center of post-COVID economic reconstruction in the UK.
The misperceptions of the majority
This is what people wanted to happen, but how did they think things would actually end? In both countries, participants felt it was more likely to return to normal than to move towards a progressive future. They also felt that the government was more likely to retain its power than to return it to the people.
In other words, people thought they were unlikely to get the future they wanted. The people want a progressive future, but fear returning to normalcy with the power given to the government.
We also asked people to tell us what they thought others wanted. It turned out that our participants thought that others wanted to get back to normal much more than they really wanted. This was seen in both the US and the UK in both 2020 and 2021, albeit to different degrees.
This striking divergence between what people really want, what they hope to get, and what they think others want is known as “pluralistic ignorance”.
This describes any situation in which people who are in the majority think they are in the minority. Pluralistic ignorance can have problematic consequences because, in the long run, people often change their attitudes toward what they perceive to be the prevailing norm. If people misperceive the norm, they can change their attitudes toward a minority opinion, rather than the minority conforming to the majority. This can be a problem if the minority opinion is negative: how to oppose vaccination, for example.
In our case, a consequence of pluralistic ignorance may be that a return to normalcy will be more acceptable in the future, not because most people have wished for this result, but because they felt it was inevitable and that most of the rest. they wanted it.
Ultimately, this would mean that the real preferences of the majority will never find the political expression that, in a democracy, they deserve.
Therefore, to counter pluralistic ignorance, we must try to make sure that people know the opinion of the public. This is not simply a necessary countermeasure to pluralistic ignorance and its adverse consequences; people’s motivation also generally increases when they feel that their preferences and goals are shared by others. Therefore, simply informing people that there is a social consensus for a progressive future could be what unleashes the motivation to achieve it.
Stephan Lewandowsky, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and Ullrich Ecker, Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Future Member of the Australian Research Council, University of Western Australia