There follows a guest post by Dr. Mark Stephen Nesti, a Chartered Psychologist, Consultant Performance Psychologist and former Associate Professor of Psychology in Sport, who is very concerned about the long term ramifications of the societal anxiety deliberately generated during the pandemic to increase compliance. He is author of Meaning and Spirituality in Sport and Exercise – Psychological Perspectives.
Much has been said about how fear has been used to drive the narrative and help impose restrictions on personal liberty we have faced during the pandemic. In this article I would like to suggest that anxiety, rather than fear itself, has become the much bigger concern, and one whose effects will haunt us for years to come.
If we take a step back for a moment, we can see that psychological language has been in the spotlight throughout the last two years. Some sections of the media and various bodies of experts have undoubtedly used their influence to generate fear in the general public. Although fear can paralyse our thoughts and actions, I believe that what we have actually been subject to has been a deliberate attempt to generate massive levels of societal anxiety. As a psychologist, I believe that anxiety, rather than fear, will turn out to be a major health problem facing individuals in the years ahead. Due to a number of complex factors operating at personal and community levels, the incidence of clinical and sub-clinical anxiety has never been higher in the U.K. population. The data to support this claim are well known, and yet, we have just been through a situation where psychologists on SAGE supported by others have deliberately stoked anxiety to increase compliance around various Covid measures.
It is quite usual in everyday speech to use terms like fear and anxiety interchangeably. Most of the time this is not a problem, and reflects a basic and commonly held view that these terms describe an uncomfortable emotion which is a reaction to a perceived or real threat. In fact, however, these words describe different psychological conditions with important distinctions. If we look at fear first, a key feature is that it is always related to a specific cause. In straightforward terms, we always know what it is we are afraid of, and our response involves either ‘fight or flight’. Now, if we reflect on our own personal experience, we know that anxiety is quite different to fear, not least because it is often much harder to state exactly what we are so anxious about. Indeed, the best definitions of anxiety describe it as apprehension about a future event, and one thing we can say about the future is that it is by definition very uncertain. The way the pandemic narrative has changed so often over the course of the last two years, uncertainty about the efficacy of masks, the lethality of different strains of the virus, doubts about whether non-symptomatic transmission is possible, and changes in advice about who should be vaccinated, are just some of the sources of anxiety we have been subject to.
Early in the pandemic, I noticed the high profile being given to behavioural scientists. The presence of several psychologists of varying backgrounds on the SAGE group has, I am convinced, provided the opportunity to use fear to generate damaging levels of endemic anxiety in the general population. It is undoubtedly true that narratives around masks, social distancing, hand washing and vaccines have been forced through by using language and techniques designed to instil anxiety in people. This strategy has been deliberated targeted at the whole population and has at times been aimed at more vulnerable sections of the population. On other occasions it is directed at groups largely not at risk, like healthy young people and children. I am convinced that this dangerous and unethical action has been so effective with older people because it has focused on some of the most important issues human beings face as they age, namely, fear of poor health, illness and death. In contrast, messaging the young and healthy has centred on less than subtle forms of coercion around protecting others and doing the right thing. Irrespective of the methods of persuasion used by the authorities, the end result has been a crisis of anxiety.
The levels of anxiety that some individuals and communities have experienced will have left people affected in many different ways. Although the SAGE psychologists seem only interested in behaviour and behaviour change, the damage to more internal processes, such as our cognitive faculties around decision-making and learning and emotional qualities such as empathy and resilience, will likely be profound. Extensive research and clinical practice suggest that psychological damage of this kind and magnitude does not disappear when the threat has been removed. More likely, for many people it will become a chronic condition. The impact of all this psychological trauma on individual lives and community cohesion will be costly, both at a financial and personal level.
What is so remarkable is that the use of incessant fear to generate anxiety and change overt behaviour, has long been criticised as an unworthy approach to human learning and development. Based, as it is, largely on the animal research of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner in the early part of the last century, behaviourist psychology has been the preferred instrument used by all totalitarian regimes during the 20th century. This approach to psychology is based on the idea that human beings do not possess free will and that the notion of freedom at a personal and societal level is something carried over from less enlightened pre-scientific times. Opposed to this are a number of personalist, phenomenological and existential psychological perspectives, to some of which I subscribe, and which are in line with common sense and sound reasoning. These approaches see human beings in a very different way. They are grounded in a philosophy that accepts we are influenced by genetics and the environment but that we also possess agency or freewill, and that it is this quality which ultimately is the most important factor in influencing who and what we become. These approaches to the discipline of academic psychology are much less well known in the Anglosphere, emerging as they mostly do from older traditions in European continental philosophy and psychology. The reasons for the dominance of more deterministic behaviourist and cognitive psychology within the English speaking academic world are many, although maybe one of the most important is due to a desire to conceive psychology as a natural science allowing for measurement, prediction and control. Psychology viewed in this way has no place for ideas like freedom, responsibility or autonomy.
Looking at how the psychologists at SAGE and their colleagues have behaved during the past two years, it is clear that they favour the conditioning of people to encourage behavioural compliance. They are not alone in this bias since such models of psychology have had a huge and detrimental effect on other areas, like education and the media. The result of this denial of human agency and autonomy in thought and practice has undermined our capacity to engage in critical thinking. In fact, it sometimes seems as though the best (and last!) critical thinkers are amongst people who have been fortunate to escape modern university education and have entered the job market straight from school. As a recently retired university academic, I noticed a very worrying and profound decline over many years in the ability of some of my students (and younger colleagues in some cases) to question ideas and think critically. Such a demise has not only impacted our respective professional and vocational areas but means we are seeing a much more compliant, complacent and accepting mentality in many individuals and institutions. Approaches to psychology that deny human free will, agency and self-responsibility have, I believe, severely undermined our confidence to rely on our minds to reason well and make our own decisions.
The acceptance of the centrality of free will in defining human beings means that choice and individual initiative must always be at the forefront of any proposed plan of action. It is well known that anxiety accompanies choice; indeed, even to think about the possibility of having a choice will cause anxiety, sometimes alongside excitement if it’s something we like. We are now facing a future where many people are afraid to think for themselves in the hope that they can avoid existential anxiety. But the tragedy and beauty of the human condition is that we are unable to escape from the need to choose. The solution to reducing anxiety is for people to reject fear and take back their freedom to think and act. If the last two years has taught us anything, it must be that the answer can never be to give away our freedom to others to think for us, no matter their expertise or qualifications. And what’s worse, such an anxiety avoidance strategy only deepens the anxiety, sometimes to the point that even the most insignificant of choices and decisions can’t be faced. The repercussions of this type of anxiety at an individual and society level should worry us all.