OPINION24 June 2020

Rule making and breaking in lockdown

Covid-19 Opinion UK

Contradictory thinking about Covid-19 offers insights on how people are processing an unprecedented situation. Katherine Rhodes reflects on observations from lockdown video diaries.

Social distancing supermarket covid_crop

Around the time the Dominic Cummings story broke, I was finishing my analysis of film footage from Peek Content’s coronavirus video research project. 

Peek’s chief executive Dave Kaye had given me an access-all-areas pass to the Corona Stories project and I’d been watching hours of video diary footage which chronicled the lockdown experiences of different people across the UK. My task was to see ‘what insight was emerging’ beyond the stories. 

One of the most captivating video diaries came from Richard, a bus driver, who was having to figure out on the job what was and wasn’t safe for him and his passengers. Richard spent quite a lot of video time calling out rule breakers – people who were transgressing his version of the lockdown regulations.

I’m self-isolating… unless I need wine

As I dug deeper into the early weeks’ lockdown footage I came across examples of, at first sight, contradictory thinking: One participant set herself the rule not to go out at all, but broke it for wine, and during her trip took note of how ‘other people’ were not staying safe and were breaking rules. Another, a supermarket manager, was worried about people gathering in their gardens, but was also meeting up with a friend to go for a walk (because his friend was single and lonely).

You could clearly hear negative and judgemental thinking alongside (and often in the next breath) strong support for the community, kindness and our NHS. I suspect we were all having these mixed thoughts and behaviours to some degree. I know I was.

Ebb and flow thinking

More broadly,  I noticed ‘ebb and flow’ thinking in the video outputs. A wave of positivity about the situation (“We’re making the most of our time together”) would be replaced by a negative set of thoughts (“It’s hard and my children are anxious”).

This is something of a challenge for those in authority who are trying to make rules and deliver solutions, and for the business community, who want to connect with their customers and show empathy and understanding.

How do you connect with such messy, complicated emotions, reactions, feelings and contradictory behaviour? What is the authentic response here? Thanksgiving for our caregivers, or irritation at the transgressors? And if both are authentic, how do we square that circle…?

What we are seeing is complex, and there is layered/split-thinking going on. Rather than see this as merely a jumble of messy thoughts and hypocritical behaviour, it could be helpful to look at it as ways of processing a new and complicated experience.

Ebb and flow thinking, where positives are contrasted with negatives, is a way in which people stack thoughts on top of each other to create a layered analysis of what is going on. In the footage I watched, I could see how one thought led to another, to another then another. Not only were thoughts ebbing and flowing in a wave pattern, but also each wave was triggering a new connection which set off another compare-and-contrast set of ideas. This is system two thinking. Those brains were whirring.

The internal judgements we are going through around rule-making and rule-breaking are multi-layered too, but in another way. Here, people are accessing the multiple identities that everyone carries inside themselves: we are (at the very least) ‘me’ ‘us’ and ‘them’. 

By using split-thinking, we are able to live with inherent contradictions around rule-breaking and transgression. ‘Me’ is doing something altruistic – meeting up with a lonely friend, for example – whereas ‘them’ (others) are breaking the two-metre rule; out and about doing non-essential things. ‘Us’ is the community where we come together to clap for our heroes.

Those in authority, and those aiming to connect and communicate with different audiences, could do well to dig deeper into the ways in which people are processing these unprecedented experiences.

Communication solutions may not lie in just a ‘system one’ approach, but also recognising our capacity for dealing with ambiguity and complicated experiences. Good governance may be about laying out positives, negatives and less-than-perfect solutions, comparing and contrasting and then exploring a good solution that is not ideal for everyone. 

Communication too might be purposefully delivered through different lenses. The ‘me’ or first-person singular lens allows us lots of leeway when it comes to transgression and rule-breaking. The ‘us’ or first-person plural lens allows us to galvanise groups of people together (although the down-side of this is ‘in/out group’ behaviour and ‘othering’ that happens when we apply a ‘them’ lens).

As we move out of lockdown, let’s hope that making rules (and the breaking of them) becomes a lesser part of our everyday lives. If there is a second wave and regulations are reimposed, we should be mindful of setting them firmly in the context of ‘community’ and the need to protect one another. We should explore rules openly as difficult, complicated (ebb and flow) decisions too, with lots of explanations given about why this rule can help.

That said, it is arguable now that the revelations of Dominic Cummings’ (contested) rule-breaking has rendered this ‘splitting’ between me, us and them fragile and exposed. Now he’s exploited the ‘me’ story (‘I was doing it for my family’) it might be harder to use split-thinking (thinking ‘us’) when it comes to setting rules.

The benefits of thinking aloud

Video content provides brilliant primary data that can be re-used and reviewed in many different ways (GDPR permitting) and is becoming an invaluable resource for researchers seeking insight. It is useful in helping us connect with different audiences to understand their needs, but beyond this, we can see that observing people thinking aloud can help us with other insight too – in this case, into how people are mentally processing experiences. 

It’s worth hanging on to project footage and making sure you get broad permissions for how you might use it in the future.

Katherine Rhodes is the owner of Qual Street