From the bubonic plague to the Spanish flu to the Covid-19 pandemic, governments have historically used lockdowns as a response measure to public health emergencies. At the heart of a “lockdown” is a government mandating restrictions on behaviour. However, beyond the immediate consequences of lockdowns on livelihoods, they may leave a lasting legacy on a critical aspect of the human condition: control.

During this pandemic, long periods of isolation away from daily routines have for many, created a sudden loss of control and agency, engendering feelings of helplessness, emotional labour and anxiety. The uncertainty around the spread of the virus has compounded this loss of control even further.

As countries prepare to emerge from lockdowns, we pose the question: what, if any, will the reclamation of control look like over time? Will the shared experience in lockdowns manifest in a greater mobilisation and activism for social causes (e.g. protests), or will it take the form of greater dissent versus trust in authority? We seek to initiate an exploration of these questions and the ways that the pandemic will impact on our collective psychology.

The importance of control

A key aspect of any individual’s psychosocial make-up is agency and control. Psychologists distinguish between two types of individual control: perceived and actual. Perceived control is our brain’s curated belief, feeling and judgement that we have control in influencing the environment. Perceived control is a powerful driver of behaviour and emotions, often more than actual, objective control. Consider pedestrian buttons for crosswalks. In many cases, contrary to what we believe, these buttons are simply placebos for pedestrians, giving a perception rather than actual control, and relief from knowing they have influenced the outcome.

In fact, we are so accustomed to our perceptions of control that we often suffer from a bias known as the illusion of control – the tendency for human beings to believe they can control or at least influence outcomes they have no influence over.

We can further understand the manner in which people perceive control from the perspective of “locus of control”. In simple terms, locus of control describes the degree to which individuals feel a sense of control over events in their lives. Individuals with an internal locus of control attribute the outcomes and events in their life to their own actions and volition, while a high external locus of control is the belief that one’s behaviour is a function of factors outside of one’s control such as fate, luck or randomness.

Having an internal locus of control is important. It’s well-established in psychological literature that this belief system is associated with more adaptive behaviours, higher self-esteem and overall well-being. Individuals have a deep-set need to feel efficacious and agentic in their choices. If people don’t perceive their control to stop smoking for example, they are unlikely to be able to change their habit. On the other hand, individuals with an external locus of control are more likely to experience an impact on their physical and mental health in terms of anxiety and psychological stress. In fact, recent research even suggests that those with a higher external of control report elevated psychological symptoms after being infected with Covid-19.

Before the pandemic, we would typically have a mix of internality and externality in their control belief systems. However, lockdowns and the abrupt impeding of people’s mobility have entirely disrupted that balance, almost overnight. The pandemic thrust individuals into situations where they had to cope and adapt with externality of control, and an emerging loss of both perceived and objective control. For example, an external locus of control is reflected in the experience of migrant labourers who started moving out of Maharashtra or Delhi, fearing a second lockdown, as a means of controlling a situation that was already out of their control.

Reclaiming control

Several mechanisms allow citizens to set up negotiations and make claims on the state, from elections, laws such as through protests, legal actions or even dissenting social media posts. Even as the pandemic has raged on, protests unrelated to lockdowns have taken place around the globe – from the farmers’ sit-in protests in India that saw participation from hundreds of thousands, protests for Sarah Evervard’s murder in the UK, or the protests on the Israel-Palestine crisis.

The scale and spread of the pandemic, which induced such a unifying loss of control for millions across the globe, could serve as an equalising binding agent. In other words, the shared and collective experience of losing control may boost and drive mobilisations of people through protests and rallies around social causes. This may be especially prevalent amongst the youth, who have experienced a severe psychological impact as a result of protracted social isolation and loss of control. Activism and rallying together for the greater good may become increasingly common as individuals look to restore their helplessness and reclaim control over their lives.

If true, however, what form will these protests take? We know from group psychology that it doesn’t take much to activate our hardwired “in-group bias”, favouring “us” over “them”. Disasters and pandemics stir up and bolster in-group values such as trust and loyalty, and may narrow our focus towards our immediate family, exacerbating an in-group bias for millions. Emerging vaccine nationalism is an example of this bias in action.

Further, theoretical frameworks such as parasite-stress theory suggest that individuals who perceive the threat of disease tend to become less open, more conformist and endorse more conservative political views. While the future may spell a shift towards collective action such as protests, we may see these directed towards in-group causes.

We may equally see immediate or laggard instances of dissent on the rise. In countries such as Germany, Italy and the UK, hundreds protested against fresh lockdowns as recently as March. That citizens or members have a right to dissent occupies prime property in any healthy democratic setup. This agency to do so is one that is both perceived and actual, and for the system consisting of the state and citizen to be in balance, there has to be a healthy level of optimal tension within the system.

However, a crisis such as Covid-19 and the willing abdication of control by citizens has also exposed trust deficits in governments. Governments that mishandled and failed to control the virus grossly widened the deficit between citizens and the state. Combined with the loss of control, individuals may be more likely to actively devalue things communicated to them from a position of authority going forward. In other words, the pandemic may act as a stressor that topples over the existing tension between the relationship of a state and the citizen. Dissent may be a more commonplace mechanism for reclaiming a sense of control and negotiating with the state. When viewed from the lens of “proportionality”, citizens may even come to perceive the state’s imposition of future restrictions as inefficient and unwarranted.

On the other hand, recent survey research suggests that trust in governments in Australia and New Zealand has risen dramatically due to the swift and effective response to Covid-19. Over time, could this trust manifest in greater compliance and adherence to authority? With the havoc caused by the deadly second wave in India, the government was seen to be sleeping at the wheel with an absence of science-backed approaches and effective messaging and communication. With citizens’ trust eroded, the future reclamation of control could take many forms and order of entropy.

All natural disasters such as pandemics can create both short-term and longer lasting change, from individual and group behaviours, to social systems. While the effects of Covid-19 and its accompanying lockdowns are relatively unknown and carry limited empirical evidence, the pursuit and restoration of control is likely to play an important role in shaping behaviours as countries emerge from lockdown.

Saksham is a researcher in the field of behavioural development economics and public policy, with a focus on health behaviour and labour markets.

Sanna Balsari-Palsule is a behavioural scientist. She is a lecturer at Ashoka University and principal investigator at the Centre of Social and Behaviour Change.