UCalgary podcasts feature interviews with experts from our community on the COVID-19 situation.

Episode 25: Psychology of the Pandemic

June 1, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way people interact in countless ways, from physical distancing to moving work relationships online. In the episode, we talk to Dr. Cara MacInnis, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, who's been watching people's behavioural changes as we navigate "the new normal." Cara shares her observations about behavioural shifts she's noticed that affect all of us.

Dr. Cara MacInnis (CM): In general, it's really hard to get humans to change their behaviour. And I mean, everybody knows that. Like think about any time you've tried to change a behaviour that you might've have wanted to change. It's hard to get there. Like it takes a lot of time and a lot of factors have to come together to make that happen. That's all the more challenging when we're trying to get it to happen on a collective level. Like trying to get everyone in society to do that.


Deborah Yedlin (DY): That quote you just heard was from Dr. Cara MacInnis. And this is UCalgary COVIDcast. I'm Deborah Yedlin. Thanks for joining us. Living through this pandemic has changed how humans interact with each other in many ways. And today on COVIDcast, we're talking with Dr. Cara MacInnis, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Calgary. Social psychologists, like Dr. MacInnis are watching with great interest, how our behaviour is changing as we navigate quote, "This new normal," unquote. Cara researches attitudes and what impact they have in human interaction. In our conversation, we explore what she's observing as this pandemic has brought about many behaviour changes in all of us. Welcome Cara, thanks for joining us.


CM: Thanks for having me.


DY: As a social psychologist, you are uniquely positioned to observe how our behaviours changed over these last few months. Tell us what you're seeing?


CM: Yeah, so social psychology is a study of how human behaviour is influenced by other people. So, one of the big things we study is social relationships and social interactions. And over the last few months, the way we interact with people, aside from those that we live with, if you do live with anyone, has changed completely. So for example, many have lost a really important aspect of their social life and that's their work life. Many people have lost their jobs entirely or are working from home. Working from home often means things like you're missing out on those day-to-day interactions that aren't necessarily planned, but they're pretty meaningful for people. So we're not getting to have our chit chat before meetings, or we're not stopping when we see someone in the hallway to catch up. And even those that are still working are being asked to keep their interactions to a minimum, asking to physically distance when possible. And that means that certain types of interactions just aren't going to be happening, because it's difficult to have an intimate conversation with someone from six feet apart, for example. If you want to talk about something private, it's less likely to happen. And sometimes those intimate conversations are where relationship development really happens. So in addition to that, those work interactions, we've lost a lot of our in-person contact with our friends, our extended family. So again, things are pretty much the same with the people who we live with, but with the people that we don't live with, I think things have changed a lot. And for me, like this presents challenges to relationships in general, but it presents a lot more challenges or even more difficult to overcome challenges fo relationship development. So for well-established relationships, I think, we can figure those out. We already know these people, we can talk on the phone or we can talk on video chat or whatever, but friendships are really important to us. And for the people who are at a period in life where they're wanting to develop new friendships or new romantic relationships, this is going to present a lot of challenges for them. So, that's kind of a concern that I'm having right now.


DY: Well, it's interesting that you mention it because we have our family, and then we have our work family, and you really hit on something really important. People miss their work family because they fill different needs that don't necessarily get met at home for a whole bunch of reasons. And so, how are people coping and do you have any suggestions about what people should do in order to try and bridge those gaps and not feel so disconnected? Because when you rely on your family for all your interactions, sometimes that's not so satisfying and can cause conflict.


CM: Yeah. And I think that people may not have necessarily realized that, how much they will miss their work family or their even just like day-to-day people. Maybe your daily chat with the person you buy coffee from and that sort of thing. But I think we are seeing examples of people finding ways to deal with missing out on that. For example, having video chats with your work friends, even though it's not about work stuff. So, I mean, I think we are seeing examples of that happening and we're also seeing examples of people reaching out to people who they may not have had conversations with even in years. But now that they're they're craving social interaction, they're sending an email to someone, or just randomly calling people who they haven't talked to, to try to catch up. So, I think that's happening, but there's challenges to that too, given that we may have limited time for the things we need to do, like working, especially if there's other obligations, for example, taking care of children at home. And we want to chat with our friends, we want to chat with our extended family, but there might not be enough hours in the day to do that. So, it's going to be easier for some people than others.


DY: And we know that women really need to have those social interactions and those connections. I mean, women rely very heavily on their friendships and that intimacy that goes with it, those close bonds. Are you finding that women are perhaps a little bit more disconnected and stressed than men? Or are they equally stressed for different reasons?


CM: Yeah. I mean, I don't have any findings on it yet. I think that the jury's still out on what's going on, but there are a lot of anecdotal examples suggesting that in general, the pandemic situation, the social problems that has created, are a little bit more challenging for women than men. I think a lot of that is having to do with childcare stuff specifically. But yeah, the relationship part is interesting too, because a lot of people do rate their friendships as their most important relationship, even over and above their romantic relationships or relationships with children and family members. And I believe, I want to say there is a gender difference in that. Where women are more likely to say that than men. So it would make sense. It would follow from that, that women might find this more challenging than men.


DY: Now I have a question. We've been in isolation for 10 weeks and counting, now just starting to open up again. How has this isolation affected people with underlying anxiety challenges already? How have they needed to change the way they cope? Has it exacerbated their anxiety? Can you talk a little bit about that?


CM: Yeah. And again, this is all just speculation based on what I would know of the literature already. There's not much research been completed on this yet, but I think we are seeing at least some anecdotal examples that in some ways this is more difficult for people with anxiety, but in some ways it's easier. Kind of depends on the kind of anxiety you have. If you have social anxiety, for example, then removing social interactions from your life or removing a lot of social interactions is going to reduce your anxiety. But if you have some sort of different anxiety, I'm not sure, I can't think of an example right now. It might be harder. I actually heard some anecdotal examples of this being harder specifically on people who are low anxiety, but people who are very extroverted. Like people who love interacting with people and that's kind of what they do. They love to party. They love to be with their friends and they don't like being alone. So, this is actually creating a lot more anxiety for them, whereas they would normally not have anxiety in that area of life.


DY: Well, extroverts get energy from other people. And so, if they don't have access to those other individuals that they count on or they feed off of, they have to find the energy somewhere else, and the stimulation somewhere else. And so, that I'm guessing presents a different challenge.


CM: Yeah, for sure.


DY: So now that we're starting to open up, this is again, just continuing on that anxiety spectrum. I mean, we're starting to open up, we're being allowed to go out. For some people that could cause other forms of anxiety because you go out into the community, you know that you've taken the right precautions, but you have to trust that everybody else has as well. And how do you balance that re-entry so to speak, and what kind of behaviours are you looking for as people start to do that?


CM: Yeah. I mean, people are stressed. I think it's sort of reducing a little bit of the stress given that people are being given permission to kind of re-enter and go back into the world without necessarily having to limit that as much as you did before. But people are still stressed. It was a long time that you really weren't supposed to do that at all and people were kind of getting used to that, and getting into a pattern. Now, it creates anxiety to have to go back into that situation. So it's created stress for everyone in some way or another. And people have had very little control over the situation. There isn't much that we can do besides try to follow the rules, try to physically distance, try to avoid people, that sort of thing. That's really all the average person can do. And that stress might be, people might be looking for an outlet for that stress, or an outlet for that lack of control. And as we re-enter, going back outside or going back shopping more frequently, or going to restaurants, I have some concerns about people misdirecting that stress and worrying about that people aren't following the rules as well as they are. And we've seen examples of that the whole time, but I think we're going to see an uptick in it as people start to go out more and realize that maybe not everybody is following the rules, just as strictly as I was following the rule, and we've seen examples out there for example of people seeing others out shopping with more than one person from their household, or people taking their children to the grocery store, and people are getting upset about that. And I think it fits well into something that we have in social psychology called the fundamental attribution error, which is just our tendency to explain other people's behaviours, especially behaviours that we view in a negative light. We give them dispositional explanations. So say something about that person, whereas when we do a negative behaviour, even that same behaviour, we can very easily come up with situational explanations for that. So, we see someone out shopping with their partner. We say, "Oh, that person is not a rule follower. They are taking a lot of risks. They don't care. They're very reckless." If we go shopping with our partner, we might say, "Well, it was because my partner doesn't feel comfortable shopping on their own," or, "We were just coming from my doctor's appointment and we really had to run in really quickly. And we were wearing our masks and we are following the rules." So I think that that fundamental attribution or that tendency to put onto people those dispositional explanations is likely to make us even more stressed in this situation we're already stressed. So we need to try to take a step back and think of situational explanations for these times when we see people that you feel are violating the rules a bit.


DY: So, we're seeing stories about resistance to some behaviour changes that make sense, let's say wearing a mask in public. Do you think our behaviours are changing too slowly in some cases to ensure the safety of the broader community?


CM: Yeah. I mean, in general, it's really hard to get humans to change their behaviour. And I mean, everybody knows that. Like think of any time you've tried to change a behaviour that you may have wanted to change. It's hard to get there. It takes a lot of time and a lot of factors have to come together to make that happen. And it's all the more challenging when we're trying to get it to happen on a collective level. Like trying to get everyone in society to do that. We know that attitudes and beliefs predict behaviour. So for the example of mask wearing, the people who are more likely to wear masks, the people who believe that masks are an effective way to protect public health, and that isn't everyone right now. So there's a lot of information and misinformation out there on masks. And not everyone trusts scientific data, unfortunately. So the more people that are on board with thinking that masks are effective, the more people that will wear them, but it's not going to be everyone. I think we will see people getting on board, but we need to communicate to people I think very clearly that this is effective, but unfortunately it's only effective if everyone does it. So it's one of those situations where, what is inconvenient for the individual, is what's beneficial for the group as a whole. And it's always difficult to get everybody to engage in that collective behaviour. It's a good example of a social dilemma.


DY: I was just reading something interesting that some people are comfortable wearing whatever they need to wear, and when they go outside and they're confronted with this drastically different image of the world that they left before they went into isolation, that causes them anxiety and stress and makes them want to withdraw because what they're seeing as the new normal, so to speak, is so jarring for them they'd rather not deal with it. Does that make any sense to you?


CM: Yeah. I mean, it could potentially, I don't know. We might see that on a larger scale as more and more people start to go back out. I'm not a clinical psychologist, but I work with some, and I've heard people talking about there's going to be an onslaught of people who are needing therapy and are needing potentially a lot of mental health care. And the system might not be prepared to deal with that. But yeah, it is a good possibility that people, once they try to go back to see the way that they were behaving before, are going to see that it's not possible, or it's not possible in every domain of life, which may cause people to withdraw more. So, yeah, there's a good possibility, I would say.


DY: You touched on something that has also been discussed fairly broadly, and that is the second pandemic being a mental health pandemic as a result of what's taken place over the last two and a half months. But what about, we've long worked, we're trying to work towards eliminating the stigma of mental health and perhaps the need to talk about how we're feeling and the effect that this has had. Do you think this may take us quite a bit forward in society in terms of how we talk about how we feel and our general mental health and help to remove the stigma? Because there was a survey done and it showed that 20% of the people who responded said that they were experiencing high levels of anxiety versus the number being 5% before this all started.


CM: Yeah. I would love that if it could lead to a reduction in mental illness stigma. I don't know if it will. I think it's going to be kind of like going back to what I was talking about earlier, the behaviour change. This is more of an attitude change thing, but it's similar in that it happens in slow baby steps. So, I think that we might see some aspects of it. I think like you say, like talking about it. People might be more comfortable with talking about it than they did before. Talking about this created a lot of anxiety for me and here's why, and here's how I coped or here's why I'm having trouble coping. Whereas people were not necessarily as comfortable talking about that before. I think it will be a long time before we see things on a broader level, policy being put in place to support people when they have mental health struggles, or just not having that kind of covert judgment. There might be more on the surface acceptance, but there may still be covert prejudices lying underneath the surface. And I think it's going to be pretty hard to eradicate them. We might see some steps, like I said, baby steps in the right direction, but I'm a bit of a pessimist that it's going to completely take things away.


DY: Do you think, generally speaking, are perceptions changing with some of the new norms that have been set? Or do you think people are just doing what they have to do now because they expect things will go back to the way they were before this all started?


CM: Yeah, I think it depends. It depends a little bit on the situation. I think the overall norm is changing, but depending on the given situation that you're in, the norms might be different. And that's going to depend on who's in those situations. So we use norms to decide how to behave all the time. And we gather information about those norms by observing what the people around us are doing. So, if we enter into a restaurant for the first time, since we haven't in a few months, and we see that everyone in there, they've got tape on the floor, they've got the tables distanced appropriately. They've got signs up, everything looks like they're doing what they can to enforce physical distancing, then we are very likely to do everything we can to enforce physical distancing as well. So we have to go to the bathroom, we make sure if there's a lineup, we're standing 6 feet behind the person in front of us. We're likely to follow that norm of that situation that we're in. We might go into another restaurant and there's nothing, there's no tape, people are very crowded together, people are not necessarily following the guidelines that they should. Then when we enter that situation, even if I'm a person who really cares, I do not want to come close to people, I want to follow the guidelines, because nobody else is in this situation, we know from previous research that it's likely that I'm going to follow the norm of that situation. So I'm probably not going to distance either, because I don't want everyone to look at me and see that I'm the person who's being different. So that could present challenges and it could be dangerous. And as much as people say, "No, no, I wouldn't conform. I would break the norm," it's really hard to do that. So we kind of have to try to break the norm if we do find ourselves in those situations, but it's a difficult thing to do. It's not easy to go against what everybody else is doing.


DY: And let's say you're in that restaurant, you're sitting beside someone at a table, appropriately distanced, and somebody at that table sneezes into their hand instead of their sleeve, are we going to see some sort of vigilante rule enforcement by patrons and restaurants, as people say, "Hey, wait a minute. That's actually not acceptable."


CM: We might. It kind of depends on who's there and how comfortable people are. Well, I think we'll definitely see people whispering to each other. It depends on how, getting back to extroversion, how extroverted someone is, whether they're going to go up and confront a stranger and/or how at risk someone feels. So, if someone is there who maybe they're high risk themselves, or they have a high risk family member, they're going to be more sensitive to those situations. So if we have a person like that, yeah, we might see that person going up and confronting or speaking to the staff of the restaurant or that sort of thing. But I think you will definitely see people exchanging glances at the very least, but quite likely depending on how many people are in the restaurant, we'll see at least one person confronting. And then again, going with following those social norms, if one person confronts, then that gives you permission to jump on as well.


DY: You know, we all have expectations in terms of having been in isolation, not having been able to interact with the people who we're close to, whether it's friends or work colleagues. Sometimes we have images in our heads that may not meet reality. Are you concerned at all? Or might you observe some disappointments in terms of how people reconnect as we're allowed to go back out into society? Maybe those relationships have changed. Maybe you've realized those relationships aren't important to you. I'm just curious as to what you think could happen?


CM: For people who've lost a lot of interactions with people they might normally be interacting with, they might realize that that relationship isn't as fulfilling as they thought it was, or they might, I was talking about the work thing before, might realize that some of my relationships that I just thought were day-to-day, "Hi, how are you?", were really meaningful to me. So I think you could go either way. So you might realize that you don't necessarily want to date that person that you were casually dating before, because you haven't missed them, or you might realize that I really miss my person who's my office mate and I want to hang out with them more, but I don't know if they want to hang out with me more, and that could create problems too. Right? Even if it is on the good side, you are realizing what relationships are important to you, that relationship might not be reciprocal. So we could see more relationship challenges for that reason too.


DY: And what about some people's talking about how they've had trouble sort of setting boundaries in terms of how much they work at home? And it's sort of a continuous, because the computer's there, because their desk is there, they can see it, using it sometimes as an escape from their homes and from their lives. And so I'm just curious as to how perhaps working from home has surfaced some of those sentiments about how much people use their work to withdraw from home life or other aspects that they don't particularly enjoy. But they get their joy from work and so that's where they go.


CM: Yeah. So, I mean, I think that it's kind of similar in that it can be a good thing and a bad thing. It's nice to have the option to work on a less strict schedule than usual. I mean, depending on what your work is. I think we are seeing a lot of meetings that may not have been necessary, aren't really happening now. Those things might be happening by email. So, a lot of the work that people are doing might be the work that they find more rewarding or more enjoyable. So, that's a good thing. It could potentially become a problem if people are doing it more than they should and ignoring household things that they need to do.


DY: So using it as an excuse to retreat, all of a sudden, I guess part of it is too, you have different flexibility in terms of responding. And so, that means you're not as tied to your desk all the time and so you can fit other things in, so to speak, as long as you get whatever you need to get done on time.


CM: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I think it can be a good thing too, that for people who do have the option to work from home, that they do have it as a way of escaping, if they need to. If they are feeling anxious about something or even for people who live alone. It'd probably add some structure to the day to be able to go to work. So I think there's benefits and drawbacks.


DY: So one of the areas you study is how to shift attitudes to eradicate prejudice and discrimination. And I'm curious as to whether this pandemic is intensifying some prejudice within our society and our community?


CM: Yeah. So, I mean, we've seen a lot of anecdotal examples of prejudice that has been brought on by the pandemic. So, it's not hard to find examples of anti-Asian prejudice, for example, or ageism. And I don't necessarily think it's that prejudice has appeared where there was no prejudice before. I think it's that there's been a shift from subtle prejudice to more blatant prejudice, especially in those domains. So, the people expressing these forms of prejudice kind of always were prejudiced, but the prejudice was expressed in more subtle or covert ways. And now it's coming out more blatantly. It's like hate speech or discrimination. So in general, people are feeling threatened. People are feeling that their health is threatened, people are feeling that their freedom has been threatened, and they may be attributing that threat to entire groups of people that there's no logic or justification behind that. But for example, saying that my health is threatened, and we have to live our lives in this way now because of a virus that developed in China. So therefore people are blaming everyone who is Chinese for that threat. And then that's coming out as prejudice and discrimination. Or people are saying, "My entire way of life has been disrupted because I have to protect people who are more vulnerable to this virus, who are typically people who are older, and why?" And then you get all kinds of justifications for ageism following that. I've seen, there's a recent paper that just came out on some people who are experts in ageism who called the pandemic has come along hand in hand with a parallel outbreak in ageism, because it's quite blatant what people have been saying about older people right now.


DY: Well. And I just wonder, it's sort of given a portal so to speak for that sentiment to surface in a way that's very damaging. And how do you put that genie back in the bottle? It just seems like once people start to talk in that manner, unfortunately it can take on a life of its own across the board, whether it's ageism or people ascribing certain situations to certain ethnic groups.


CM: Yeah. It has given people a justification to express prejudice. And we know that when people feel justified, they feel like the prejudice is justified, even if they know that in general, it's not socially acceptable to feel that way or speak that way. In general, a lot of my research is on prejudice reduction, and the one thing that we have, that's the best way to reduce prejudice is contact, which is very challenging when it comes to pandemic. So that means having contact with people belonging to that group that you might have prejudice towards. So if someone has a lot of anti-Asian prejudice, if they become friends with a person or people who are Asian, that's what's going to reduce that prejudice. And ideally if their relationship is intimate and lasts a long time and there's other factors there, but yeah, that's kind of the best thing that we have to reduce prejudice is what we call it intergroup contact. So contact between people belonging to different groups. And I have concerns as a person who studies this, that again, the more strict we are about engaging in social contact with people, the less likely intergroup contact is to happen because intragroup is barely happening. So I think researchers and people who work in domains that are trying to promote peaceful interactions between people, we need to come up with ways to get people engaging in that contact, but without actually engaging in as much physical contact as before. So more online contact, more even media contact kind of works sometimes. So yeah, we just need to come up with some creative ways to make that happen, but we're still in the early days of that.


DY: Yeah. There's some literature that I was reading too, that people are going to go back to their so-called cliques as opposed to their networks. And when you sort of make your world a lot smaller, that causes other challenges as well.


CM: Yeah.


DY: From an interaction standpoint. Yeah.


CM: Yeah.


DY: That could be the tendency.


CM: Yeah. Yeah. And it's problematic for sure, because what we need, again, speaking of reducing prejudice and promoting positive relationships on the whole, between groups of people, is more contact and more formation of new relationships, and it's going to be different.


DY: Well, we're going to look forward to hoping that that starts, we continue to open up, and that we can start to make contact with people that we know, and we don't know, and return to some sense of a normal existence, not like the one we've had for the last 10 weeks or so. I want to thank you very much for joining us, Cara, it's been great talking to you.


CM: Okay. Thank you.


DY: This has been UCalgary COVIDcast. To subscribe or listen to past episodes or to get more online resources for coping with the coronavirus pandemic, visit Thanks to Cara MacInnis for taking the time to chat with us today. I'm Deborah Yedlin, thanks for listening.


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