We’re living in a truly unique period in human civilisation, trapped in a world where abnormal is the new normal and unprecedented circumstances mean the old rules we lived by no longer apply.

So, how can we make sense of this new reality?

At Brand Genetics, we’re firm believers in validating our work using science and psychology as a foundation to help understand our world. One psychological lens we use is ‘the self-determination theory’ which helps us understand the motivations behind people’s behaviours — even those that seem inexplicable.

The self-determination theory is centred around the idea that when people’s core needs (Autonomy, Relatedness and Competence — ARC, are satisfied, they feel happy and motivated. On the flip side, when those needs are not met, this makes people feel frustrated and unfulfilled.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created a ‘perfect storm’: a hostile environment that fails to satisfy people on many levels across these 3 key needs.

Autonomy unsatisfied: a situation spiralling out of control

While affecting people in different ways and to different extents, Covid-19 is a ‘democratic’ virus: an unseen enemy that can target anyone and everyone. With no vaccine and no immediate end in sight, the pandemic is an uncontrollable situation — frustrating our need for autonomy on a visceral level.

Today a third of the world’s population is restricted by some type of enforced lockdown, quarantine or curfew. We are a world used to globalisation — where freedom of ideas, information and movement are key. Measures designed to protect individuals and prevent the spread of the virus feel like confinement and infractions of personal freedoms in a “free and libertarian society” (Boris Johnson, 2020).

Limited by new rules, told to stay at home and how to behave for an indefinite period of time, people have lost personal autonomy over their lives.

Recognising this, world leaders have tried to satisfy people’s need for autonomy. Boris Johnson’s rousing Churchillian speech was a demonstration of power and control — to restore the public’s faith in the government. The ubiquitous and repeated mantra, ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, and save lives’ restores personal autonomy by placing responsibility and power back on the shoulders of the individual.

Competence unsatisfied: the fear of the unknown

A pandemic is (thankfully) a rare occurrence. Governments, businesses, religions and a small proportion of dedicated survivalists have all prepared disaster plans for such ‘acts of God’ — with varying degrees of success.

By definition, a ‘novel’ virus presents us with a void; symptoms, incubation period, transmission, long-term effects and mortality rate were all previously unknown. As authorities around the world pivoted to deal with this new ‘enemy’, they struggled to provide clear and consistent guidance for people. Thus, people also struggled with this lack of information, highlighting a ‘gap’ in their need for ‘competence’ and creating an overwhelming fear of the unknown.

In an effort to reassure people and empower them through information, governments have now spent millions on educational messaging; from the emergence of Taiwain’s Shiba mascot to the public return of scientific advisors on the news to ‘restore’ this sense of competence and signify a better understanding of the situation at hand.

Relatedness unsatisfied: ‘no man is an island’

To paraphrase Steven Taylor, pandemics are essentially psychological phenomena that go beyond a virus infecting people. They are caused and contained by human behaviours. In a bid to slow the numbers of sick and dying, and to ultimately ‘flatten the curve’, social distancing and social restrictions of varying degrees are now in place worldwide.

But people are social creatures who crave connection, togetherness and community. Denying people the ability to meet, to stand close to and to touch one another deeply frustrates our need for relatedness.

In response, people have turned to virtual hangouts, video calls and social media to try to recreate face-to-face social interactions. The drive to satisfy our need for relatedness is so great that it threatened to ‘break the internet’ with a huge spike in virtual communications that led to the European Commission ordering a range of streaming services and telecoms companies to limit customers’ data consumption.

Explained: one curious Covid-19 phenomenon

Only a week ago, the human face of the coronavirus was the image of desperate, potentially vulnerable people surrounded by empty shelves — a saddening and shocking reality that flooded social media. Across the world, frenzied panic-buying ensued, but the hottest commodity wasn’t pasta or canned goods — it was toilet paper!

Applying our psychological theory to decode this phenomenon, we understand that shopping fulfils the need for autonomy as people browse, buy and own — they can control the contents of their own home even when the world around them is uncertain. Hoarding satisfies the need for competence: people feel they are making a ‘smart’ decision to be prepared. As items become more scarce, panic-buying ensues; people assume scarce items must be important and subsequently want the items that ‘knowledgeable hoarders’ possess (including their toilet paper), and the cycle continues.

So why was it so hard to find toilet paper in particular? The threat of disease and fear of infection heightens people’s sensitivity to disgust. As people feel less in control of the world around them, they look for elements of their own life they can control. In this case, stockpiling toilet paper allows people to feel in clean and in control of their body and bodily functions (colloquially, they can feel like they’ve got this shit covered).

The Human Experience (HX) Learning

The principles of ARC can’t predict the future, but we can to use them to make the world a happier place.

Margaret Thatcher once said “There is no such thing as society…There are individual men and women and there are families…People look to themselves first.” We disagree. Whilst we are individuals with distinct needs to be fulfilled, we all still crave togetherness.

Across the world people are finding ways to create communities and forge connections; from using simple hashtags and joining virtual ‘pub’ quizzes to operas performed on balconies in Sienna and nationwide applause in recognition of essential workers (#clapforNHS). Creating communities on a national — and in some cases international — scale drives a renewed sense of relatedness. Although separated, people are united through common actions: we are all in this together.

There have been selfish incidents, borne out of uncertainty and lack of control, but we have also seen people’s desire for relatedness trump all else and create strikingly joyful moments showing our collective humanity can conquer adversity.

At Brand Genetics, we might not be able to predict the future, but we do hope that once ‘normal life’ resumes we cling onto the kindness, joy and happiness that is bringing us light in what are now our darkest days.

Nathania Messer is a senior consultant at Brand Genetics, an agency specialising in human-centred insight and innovation. Having worked in insight and innovation for 5 years, Nathania has a breadth of experience in the world of FMCG and beyond, including a project on the world’s most valuable commodity — loo roll

Human-Centered Insight, Innovation and Trends from Brand Genetics

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