Skip to main content

Life after COVID: most people don’t want a return to normal – they want a fairer, more sustainable future

Jacob Lund/Shutterstock

We are in a crisis now – and omicron has made it harder to imagine the pandemic ending. But it will not last forever. When the COVID outbreak is over, what do we want the world to look like?

In the early stages of the pandemic – from March to July 2020 – a rapid return to normal was on everyone’s lips, reflecting the hope that the virus might be quickly brought under control. Since then, alternative slogans such as “build back better” have also become prominent, promising a brighter, more equitable, more sustainable future based on significant or even radical change.

Returning to how things were, or moving on to something new – these are very different desires. But which is it that people want? In our recent research, we aimed to find out.

Along with Keri Facer of the University of Bristol, we conducted two studies, one in the summer of 2020 and another a year later. In these, we presented participants – a representative sample of 400 people from the UK and 600 from the US – with four possible futures, sketched in the table below. We designed these based on possible outcomes of the pandemic published in early 2020 in The Atlantic and The Conversation.

We were concerned with two aspects of the future: whether it would involve a “return to normal” or a progressive move to “build back better”, and whether it would concentrate power in the hands of government or return power to individuals.

Four possible futures

Back to normal – strong government
“Collective safety”
  • We don’t want any big changes to how the world works.
  • We are happy for the government to keep its powers to keep us safe and get back on economic track.
Back to normal – individual autonomy
“For freedom”
  • We don’t want any big changes to how the world works; our priority is business as usual and safety.
  • We want to take back from governments the powers they have claimed to limit our movements and monitor our data and behaviour.
Progressive – strong government
“Fairer future”
  • What we want is for governments to take strong action to deal with economic unfairness and the problem of climate change.
  • We are happy for the government to keep its powers if it protects economic fairness, health and the environment.
Progressive – individual autonomy
“Grassroots leadership”
  • What we want is for communities, not governments, to work together to build a fair and environmentally friendly world.
  • We want to take back from governments the powers they have claimed to limit our movements and monitor our data and behaviour.

In both studies and in both countries, we found that people strongly preferred a progressive future over a return to normal. They also tended to prefer individual autonomy over strong government. On balance, across both experiments and both countries, the “grassroots leadership” proposal appeared to be most popular.

People’s political leanings affected preferences – those on the political right preferred a return to normal more than those on the left – yet intriguingly, strong opposition to a progressive future was quite limited, even among people on the right. This is encouraging because it suggests that opposition to “building back better” may be limited.

Our findings are consistent with other recent research, which suggests that even conservative voters want the environment to be at the heart 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 actually would end up? In both countries, participants felt that a return to normal was more likely than moving towards a progressive future. They also felt it was more likely that government would retain its power than 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 fear that they’ll get a return to normal with power vested in the government.

We also asked people to tell us what they thought others wanted. It turned out our participants thought that others wanted a return to normal much more than they actually did. This was observed in both the US and UK in both 2020 and 2021, though to varying extents.

This striking divergence between what people actually want, what they expect to get and what they think others want is what’s known as “pluralistic ignorance”.

This describes any situation where 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 shift their attitudes towards what they perceive to be the prevailing norm. If people misperceive the norm, they may change their attitudes towards a minority opinion, rather than the minority adapting to the majority. This can be a problem if that minority opinion is a negative one – such as being opposed to vaccination, for example.

In our case, a consequence of pluralistic ignorance may be that a return to normal will become more acceptable in future, not because most people ever desired this outcome, but because they felt it was inevitable and that most others wanted it.

Two people talking on a bench
We think we know what other people think – but often we’re wrong. dekazigzag/Shutterstock

Ultimately, this would mean that the actual preferences of the majority never find the political expression that, in a democracy, they deserve.

To counter pluralistic ignorance, we should therefore try to ensure that people know the public’s opinion. This is not merely a necessary countermeasure to pluralistic ignorance and its adverse consequences – people’s motivation also generally increases when they feel their preferences and goals are shared by others. Therefore, simply informing people that there’s a social consensus for a progressive future could be what unleashes the motivation needed to achieve it.The Conversation


This blog is written by Caboteer Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair of Cognitive Psychology, University of Bristol and Ullrich Ecker, Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Australian Research Council Future Fellow, The University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Popular posts from this blog

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet. Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%). Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability. This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example

1-in-200 year events

You often read or hear references to the ‘1-in-200 year event’, or ‘200-year event’, or ‘event with a return period of 200 years’. Other popular horizons are 1-in-30 years and 1-in-10,000 years. This term applies to hazards which can occur over a range of magnitudes, like volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, space weather, and various hydro-meteorological hazards like floods, storms, hot or cold spells, and droughts. ‘1-in-200 years’ refers to a particular magnitude. In floods this might be represented as a contour on a map, showing an area that is inundated. If this contour is labelled as ‘1-in-200 years’ this means that the current rate of floods at least as large as this is 1/200 /yr, or 0.005 /yr. So if your house is inside the contour, there is currently a 0.005 (0.5%) chance of being flooded in the next year, and a 0.025 (2.5%) chance of being flooded in the next five years. The general definition is this: ‘1-in-200 year magnitude is x’ = ‘the current rate for eve

Coconuts and climate change

Before pursuing an MSc in Climate Change Science and Policy at the University of Bristol, I completed my undergraduate studies in Environmental Science at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. During my final year I carried out a research project that explored the impact of extreme weather events on coconut productivity across the three climatic zones of Sri Lanka. A few months ago, I managed to get a paper published and I thought it would be a good idea to share my findings on this platform. Climate change and crop productivity  There has been a growing concern about the impact of extreme weather events on crop production across the globe, Sri Lanka being no exception. Coconut is becoming a rare commodity in the country, due to several reasons including the changing climate. The price hike in coconuts over the last few years is a good indication of how climate change is affecting coconut productivity across the country. Most coconut trees are no longer bearing fruits and thos