We are in crisis now – and Omicron has made it difficult to imagine an end to the pandemic. But it will not last forever. When the COVID epidemic ends, what do we want the world to look like?
In the early stages of the pandemic – from March to July 2020 – a quick return to normal was on everyone’s lips, reflecting hope that the virus could be brought under control quickly. Since then, alternative slogans such as “better build”Have also become prominent, promising a brighter, fairer, more sustainable future based on significant or even radical change.
Going back to how it was, or moving on to something new – these are very different desires. But what is it that people want? In ours recent research, we aimed to find out.
Together with Carrie Fazer 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 participants – a representative sample of 400 people from the UK and 600 from the US – with four possible futures, outlined in the table below. We designed them based on the possible outcomes of the pandemic announced in early 2020 Atlantic i Conversation.
We were concerned about two aspects of the future: whether it would include a “return to normal” or a progressive move to “get better”, and whether it would concentrate power in the hands of government or restore power to individuals.
Four possible futures
|Return to normal – strong government
|Return to normal – individual autonomy
|Progressive – strong government
A Fairer Future
|Progressive – individual autonomy
In both studies and in both countries, we found that people prefer a progressive future rather than a return to normalcy. They also tended to prefer individual autonomy over strong government.
Overall, in both experiments and in both countries, the “basic leadership” proposal seemed the most popular.
People’s political affiliations influenced preferences — those on the political right preferred to return to normalcy than those on the left — but intriguing, strong opposition to a progressive future was rather limited, even among people on the right. This is encouraging because it suggests that opposition to “better construction” could be limited.
Our findings are consistent with others recent research, suggesting that even conservative voters want the environment to be at the center of economic reconstruction in the UK after COVID.
Misperceptions of the majority
That’s what people wanted to happen – but how did they think things would actually end? In both countries, participants felt that a return to normalcy was more likely than a 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. People want a progressive future, but they are afraid that they will return to normal with the power that the government has.
We also asked people to tell us what they think others want. It turned out that our participants thought that others wanted to return to normal much more than they actually are. This has been observed in both the US and the UK in both 2020 and 2021, albeit to varying degrees.
This striking difference between what people actually want, what they expect to get and what others think they want is what 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 towards what they consider to be the prevailing norm. If people misperceive the norm, they can change their attitudes towards minority opinion, instead of the minority conforming to the majority. This can be a problem if the minority opinion is negative – such as opposition to vaccination, for example.
In our case, the consequence of pluralistic ignorance may be that a return to normalcy will become more acceptable in the future, not because most people have ever wanted such an outcome, but because they felt it was inevitable and most others wanted it.
Finally, it would mean that the real preferences of the majority never find the political expression they deserve in a democracy.
To counter pluralistic ignorance, we need to try to ensure that people know public opinion. This is not just a necessary countermeasure to pluralistic ignorance and its harmful consequences – people’s motivation 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 needed to achieve it.
Stephan Lewandowsky, Department of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and Ullrich Ecker, Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Future Fellow of the Australian Research Council, University of Western Australia