Transparency is key in a crisis – so why isn’t the British government being straight with us? | Stephen Reicher | Opinion

You might assume that during a time of crisis it’s important for governments to hold information close to their chest. Surely, in the midst of a life and death struggle, the priority is to be pragmatic and effective. In such circumstances, openness is simply a luxury we can’t afford.

But openness is not a luxury, or an abstract principle to be set against more pressing needs. In fact, it’s a crucial component in the struggle to defeat illness. For a number of reasons, this is rarely appreciated by governments.

The most fundamental of these reasons has to do with an elitist conception of human psychology. There is a longstanding view, dating back to the dawn of industrialisation and formation of mass society, that people are psychologically fragile. Their reasoning is beset by bias. They can’t comprehend complexity. They can’t deal with uncertainty. They certainly can’t cope with threat. So in a crisis, they fold. They react excessively, irrationally, dysfunctionally. And their reactions create as many problems, if not more, than the original crisis itself. This view is encapsulated by a scene common to Hollywood disaster films: people fleeing danger, screaming and waving their arms in the air, before meeting a grisly end.

This view holds that since people are childlike and can’t look after themselves, they need a paternalistic government to shield them from uncomfortable truths and guide them through a dangerous world. Not surprisingly, this attitude is highly attractive to governments of different stripes. And, over the years, on various committees planning for emergencies, I have seen this attitude again and again. I have endlessly heard the anxious enquiry: “Won’t people panic if we are straight with them?”

The irony here is that people very rarely panic in a crisis. They are generally calm, orderly and, as we’ve seen during the coronavirus crisis, they come together to support each other through hard times. When people die, it is less because they overreact than because they underreact. They fail to appreciate the true dangers of a situation until it is too late. And how can they appreciate those dangers if they aren’t properly warned of them? Lack of openness, and of clear and comprehensive information, does nothing to protect people. To the contrary – such opacity is a killer during a crisis like this.

The real story of this pandemic is one of remarkable public heroism. If the spread of the virus has been contained, it is because people’s compliance with the lockdown has gone well beyond expectations. This hasn’t been easy. Many people have been suffering, and yet still they have remained home for the public good.

What has led to such high levels of adherence? The literature on why people obey authorities is clear. It isn’t out of fear of punishment, but because people believe the authorities are of us, and are acting for us. The reason we feel bound together in a common cause has partly to do with a sense of “procedural justice”: being treated fairly, being listened to and being reasoned with. In other words, people are more inclined to obey authority when they feel they are being respected as equals, not patronised like children.

Here, the government’s opacity is profoundly corrosive. An unwillingness to trust people with information undermines this sense of procedural justice. In turn, this sets government apart from the people, which weakens adherence to policies such as the lockdown, allowing infection to run rampant. This is why a policy of openness has to be a critical part of the government’s efforts to defeat Covid-19.

Ultimately, though, we need a broader shift in the relationship between the state and its citizens. The government must abandon a psychology that infantilises people. It must recognise and respect the ability of the public to acknowledge and deal with harsh realities. It must engage us as full partners in every stage of the strategy against Covid-19: from formulating a response, to implementing and evaluating policy. And, as in any constructive relationship, none of this can happen without putting openness at the very heart of what government does.

Stephen Reicher is a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, an adviser to the UK and Scottish governments on coronavirus, and a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science

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