The pandemic has affected every aspect of our lives. One study suggests it has led to an increase in collectivism, and an overall inclination towards our roots.

A US-based study on the effects of Covid-19 on human psychology and socio-cultural change has found that the pandemic increased individuals’ awareness of the inevitability of death, strengthening collectivism amongst Americans. 

Collectivism can be defined as the principle of prioritising the group over the individual.

The emergence of Covid-19 has led to an increased threat to the survival of human beings worldwide, with scores of people getting infected and dying each day.

As the virus evokes the fear of death, the study has found that an effect of the pandemic on individuals’ psychology is an increased awareness of the inevitability of one’s death, known as “mortality salience”.

The pandemic has also introduced new problems in terms of material resources, damaging the economic wellbeing of communities worldwide.

The study suggested that these conditions introduced by the pandemic match the conditions that our ancestors lived through, and thus trigger evolutionary responses in human psychology that include a tendency towards collectivism.

Subsistence ecologies vs. commercial ecologies

Covid-19 has led to an environment dominated by high threat to survival and low prosperity, which are two prevailing characteristics of the “subsistence ecologies” humans evolved within.

Subsistence ecologies refer to communities of small villages where life expectancy, as well as material resources, is low. In these communities, people engage in subsistence activities, such as growing and preparing their own food, as well as making their own clothes and shelters, and exhibit collectivist values.

According to literature, people in subsistence ecologies experience elevated survival concerns and consequently exhibit high mortality salience.

In contrast to subsistence ecologies are commercial ecologies, which refer to the current way of life in urban communities where life expectancy and access to resources are improved, and people rely on consumption rather than supporting themselves, as well as exhibiting individualistic values.

People in commercial ecologies experience a lower threat to their survival, and consequently suffer less from mortality salience.

The ecology of the United States, as in many other parts of the world, is commercial as per cultural evolution, characterised by “ever greater urbanisation, commercialisation, wealth,and monetisation of activity”.

However, the emergence of Covid-19 has toppled two key characteristics of commercial ecologies by increasing mortality salience induced by mortality rates and decreasing economic prosperity, pushing communities towards conditions of subsistence ecologies.

As stated in the study, unemployment in the US reached its highest since the Great Depression when Covid-19 hit, leaving “almost one-third of the country unable to pay for subsistence basics like adequate food, medical care, or utility bills”.

This economic insecurity caused further survival concerns in addition to the fear of death induced by Covid-19, as well as exhibiting a decrease in prosperity.

The study posited that people’s mental states and behaviours would shift in line with this change in circumstances, with representations related to the way of life in subsistence ecologies, such as collectivist values, increasing.

Covid-19 has caused over 5 million deaths worldwide, and infected fiftyfold more people.
Covid-19 has caused over 5 million deaths worldwide, and infected fiftyfold more people. (Robyn Beck / AFP)

Based on big data analysis from four online platforms, researchers gathered and analysed data from Google searches, Twitter, blogs, and internet forums, to examine social change induced by the pandemic.

They examined how people’s discourse had changed after the pandemic led to a national emergency being declared in the US, with data samples beginning 70 days before the emergency declaration and extending to 70 days after the declaration.

The underlying idea was that the language people used online represented their mental states and behaviours, and that by examining the linguistic terms used by masses, they would arrive at a general understanding of socio-cultural change in the US.

What does George Floyd have to do with it?

The study found that linguistic representations of mortality salience, collectivism, and subsistence activities considerably increased on all four online platforms after the onset of Covid-19, in line with the change in circumstances from commercial ecologies to subsistence ecologies.

Researchers had also predicted a “reduced aspiration for wealth,” but the findings failed to support this hypothesis.

The findings indicated higher mortality salience, increased interest in subsistence activities, and amplified collectivism in the US population in the wake of the pandemic.

Moreover, the findings had an “unusually high level of statistical significance,” meaning there is very strong evidence to support them.

In support of their analysis, the authors provided the rather striking example of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, raising the question of why the BLM protests “exploded” during the pandemic, at risk to their own lives, when “George Floyd was not the first or last black man or woman to be unjustly murdered by police or even to have their unjust murder filmed.” 

They found the answer in the increased collectivism exhibited by the US population with the emergence of the pandemic.

An evolutionary response

The study shows that the mass-scale survival threat and drop in prosperity caused by Covid-19 triggered an “evolutionarily conditioned response,” leading to a “shift toward the psychology and behaviour typical of the small-scale, collectivistic, and rural subsistence ecologies.”

Moreover, the study’s findings can be generalised to a global scale.

“The Covid-19 pandemic significantly increased the death rate of every country in the world. Wherever there is a significant increase in the death rate, we would predict a large-scale correlating behavioural and psychological shift toward the subsistence ecologies in which humans evolved,” Noah Evers, one of the authors of the article, told TRT World.

According to Evers, they have collected preliminary data for three other countries as well, namely Indonesia, Japan, and Mexico. Those findings were also in line with their hypotheses, showing a significant increase in representations of collectivism and subsistence activities on Twitter after the onset of the pandemic.

The new findings, however, showed smaller changes compared to the original study. According to Evers, that is because “compared with the United States, these countries had higher mortality rates, more collectivistic values, and more rural environments even before the pandemic began.”

Overall, the study supports that changes in mortality salience and prosperity are reflected in the mental states and behaviour of people, leading to shifts from collectivism to individualism, and subsistence to consumerism.

So, will collectivism and subsistence activities stick around after the worst is left behind?

The authors suggest that although people might snap out of the subsistence ecology mindstate as fast as they adopted it with the pandemic, the effects are also likely to leave their mark for younger generations as “prior research has shown that economic conditions present in one's adolescence and emerging adulthood have a lifelong impact on people's values”.

Source: TRT World