Coping strategies

February 4, 2021

News, Portrait

Our need for social contact is powerful, says Jepson professor Don Forsyth.

By Matthew Dewald

Social psychologist and professor Don Forsyth had ideas about how our social behavior would change when the pandemic hit. No one knows better than he does how important our social needs are, but he also knows that his field has long said that physical needs always trump them.

“Self-preservation — fight or flight — I expected that to dominate social needs,” he says.

So he puzzled over how to explain people’s response to this threat. Even those who took the threat seriously began venturing out, visited relatives, and otherwise tried to move on with life in ways that they knew experts were saying was risky.

“Much sooner than I thought it would happen, people got fed up with isolation,” he says. “They needed to be with other people.”

Ethical thought and moral judgment are two of the other areas that Forsyth researches and teaches about. In fact, he holds the Thorsness Endowed Chair in Ethical Leadership in the Jepson School of Leadership Studies. When he started to consider how people were responding to the pandemic, the question for him was less, “How can reasonable people be so deliberately irresponsible?” and more, “How do people explain this behavior to themselves to make it feel reasonable?”

Forsyth has been riding out the pandemic from a small vacation home near the Shenandoah Mountains. As he taught classes via Zoom, he also got his first chance to watch patiently as the woods around him slowly changed. Spring’s buds turned into thick green leaves and then dried and brightened before falling to the ground and disappearing under newly fallen snow. It was both beautiful and predictable. But what to make of the human behavior he was seeing?

With reflection, he realized that it, too, was as predictable as the trees adapting to the seasons. The threat posed by COVID-19 was severe but uncertain, while the drawbacks of isolation were all too immediate. Health guidelines changed frequently, especially early in the pandemic, fueling ambiguity. In this environment, people made their own calculations about probability.

“That sounds really rational, but people were strengthening the improbability” of catching the virus, he says. “They were thinking about their buddy Frank, who hadn’t changed his behavior, and he was just fine. They weren’t saying it was a hoax, but they changed that probability in their minds so they could say, ‘I need to get out. That’s more important to me than this improbable disease.’”

These psychological tactics are complicated, he says. “I’m being kind of crude if I say, ‘Oh we just need to be with people.’”

He points out that being with people is core to our sense of self. We form our identities and values in part through dialogue with the people around us. That’s true in simple ways — what’s a New Englander to think about Tom Brady leaving the Patriots to play in Florida? — but also for more complex issues such as, in his case, deciding what to think about UR’s decision to open for an in-person fall semester.

“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” he said. “It’s hard to answer that unless you’re with other people that you talk to about these issues.”