Part 1 Scientific Insights

The science behind how the mind works during and after a crisis.

The
Disrupted
Mind

Disruptive crises1 like the COVID-19 pandemic have profound impacts on societal mindsets. When they occur, narratives, norms, emotions and other mindset factors shift and are renegotiated within societies. Some of these debates happen on the front page of newspapers; others are more hidden in social media. While we might be tempted to look at tangible changes, like working from home, public transport use or wage change for health workers, other shifts, like the build-up of anger, the decline of trust in governance, institutions and fellow citizens, will prove to be the more decisive ones in the long run.

For inexperienced changemakers, catalysing mindset change during a crisis might appear overwhelming or unpredictable. Nevertheless, as the research presented here shows, mindset change during a crisis follows patterns that enable effective strategy creation if the when and what are clear and known. Mindset shifts will also be influenced by the psychosocial patterns that unfold throughout a crisis.

1 Not all crises are disruptions and their disruptive impact can also differ between people. In general a crisis is more disruptive when it is surprising. A recurring weather event like a regular Typhoon might only be a disruption if its impacts are very uncommon. While a nuclear meltdown like in Fukushima or a homeland attack like 9/11 is a disruption as it came unexpectedly.

Crisis as a catalyst
for system change

Mindsets are deep leverage points for system change. Mindsets influence a system’s goals, power, distribution and rules. During regular times, societal mindsets change slowly. However, during disruptions, mindset changes can happen quickly, causing a significant impact on the shape of future systems. Understanding how mindsets shift during disruptions empowers players to influence the quality of this change. This can mean accelerating opportunities to achieve their goals or preventing negative mindsets from developing.

Societal mindset and
mindset factors

A societal mindset shift is not the sum of crisis-induced individual mindset shifts but rather the formation of a collective worldview through communication. Mindsets are not communicated in their entirety; they are so by using specific mindset factors. We think six ‘Mindset Factors ’ are particularly relevant: narratives, norms, identities, values, emotions and the environment. Changemakers should be able to identify the most influential ones and those that can be influenced when changing mindsets during a crisis.

How do mindsets
shift in a crisis?

1

Sources for
mindset change

During a crisis, mindset changes are catalised by two processes: emergency experiences and disorientation → reorientation. These series of changes are bound to affect our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and subsequently impact the aftermath of the crisis.

2

Collective Mindset Negotiation

While a crisis creates collective experiences and individual mindset changes, societal mindset shifts require communication to negotiate and normalise new mindsets. The negotiation of new mindsets can be divided roughly into three major phases.

3

From mindset to
system impact

While it is tempting to evaluate crises in terms of changes in behaviour and power, we suggest that the real impact of crises must be looked for in the changes of mindsets. Positive or negative changes will weigh on systems for years and influence system change even after the crisis has ended. 

What can
changemakers
do?

INFOGRAPHIC

Mindset-shift dynamics and its mechanisms during the timeline of a crisis.

The Disrupted Mind - Infographic
Processes that influence mindset change during the different stages of a crisis.

1

Sources for
mindset
change

During a crisis, mindset changes are catalyzed by two processes: emergency experiences and disorientation → reorientation. These series of changes are bound to affect our feelings, thoughts, beliefs and subsequently impact the aftermath of the crisis.

Emergency experience

As long-term habits and practices are discontinued, new experiences and defining moments trigger shifts in norms, narratives and other mindset factors. These new experiences can be caused by the disruption itself or by emergency regulations.

Disorientation -> Reorientation

The breakdown of personal and societal worldviews and heuristics, leading to individual and collective pursuits of new meanings2.

2 For example In the COVID 19 pandemic, people were asking themselves: How could this happen? Who is responsible? What else can happen when this could happen? Who is going to help? When will it be over? What can I do to protect myself?

Emergency experience

Image: During COVID 19 Panic buying and supply chain disruptions created new consumer experiences of empty shelves previously unknown to many consumer societies.

In a disruption, parts of our everyday life stop and people are exposed to new experiences. These experiences can result from the disruption causing systems to fail or change (e.g. supply breakdown for essential goods like food, water or electricity due to disasters, loss of livelihoods, or loss of properties to fires or foreclosure). Experiences can also be triggered by regulations or new behavioural norms enacted in response to a crisis (e.g. lockdown, social distancing, curfew, food rationing).

Experiences change mindsets in two ways. Firstly, extreme alterations combined with the experiences of insight, pride and human connection have significantly enhanced the probability of the brain storing these experiences as memories. Such defining moments can have long-lasting impacts on people’s mindsets (e.g. terror attacks, earthquakes or extreme weather events). Defining moments can have an enhanced impact when people are in a state of disorientation.

Secondly, mindsets are influenced by experiences that result in habit changes because of lasting behaviour alterations and their eventual normalisation over time. For example, changes in the way people greet each other and interact due to social distancing or eating habits during a war or pandemic.

[…] mindsets are influenced by experiences that result in habit changes because of lasting behaviour alterations and their eventual normalisation over time.

These two mechanisms can happen together, often increasing their impact on the mind. Examples of combined impacts can be seen in female empowerment after taking over male-dominated professions during the Second World War and the increase of remote work due to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

The current pandemic shows that experiences can change all mindset factors. As already referred, they can deconstruct narratives (“working from home does not work”), set new norms (“we don’t let our child play with other children anymore”), shape new identities (“I feel like a victim”), establish new values: (“we shall sacrifice to save others” – universalism) or build up emotions (the rise in hedonism, fear, loneliness or gratitude).

Image: During WW2 women took jobs that were usually reserved for men. After the war was over, women secured their gain in equality despite male attempts to return to post-war norms.

Disorientation -> Reorientation

Disruption can disorient people, especially at the onset of a crisis or when a new, unexpected shock follows a disaster (like a severe second wave of infection or secondary economic impacts). This disorientation primarily relates to the novelty or, more so, the unexpectedness of the event. In disorientation, our decision framework breaks down in the sense that our ordinary heuristics3 no longer function. When the playbook of our experiences is no longer applicable, making sense of everyday life, predicting its value, and our actions’ impact becomes difficult, if not impossible. Our present and future start feeling uncertain, and our sense of control and agency decline.

In disorientation, our decision framework breaks down in the sense that our ordinary heuristics no longer function.

Disorientation is seldomly absolute, only affecting some parts of a person’s worldviews. Nevertheless, humans have a strong desire to regain certainty as quickly as possible. Therefore, the perception of orientation is subjective and does not necessarily reflect reality (see conspiracy theories), meaning that people are looking for explanations to make themselves feel better – not to find the truth. Based on this, reorientation needs to be seen as an emotional process rather than a logical one.

New narratives need to answer the questions a crisis creates, but people also search for coherence with old narratives. New narratives therefore resonate with their audiences if they sustain core values, villains and heroes, especially if these are not directly challenged by the disruption. For example, audiences will not change their position on abortion or gay rights because of a climate disaster or a pandemic. People who are very sceptical about the power of technology companies are more prone to accept the 5G industry as a major culprit in the COVID 19 outbreak, just like fundamentalist Hindus in India are likely to believe the conspiracy theory that says Muslims spread the virus.

Image: Conspiracy protest: Disoriented people search for new narratives to explain their disrupted lives: It is the heyday of conspiracy theories.

3 A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action.

2

Collective
mindset
negotiation

While a crisis creates collective experiences and individual mindset changes, societal mindset shifts require communication to negotiate and normalise new mindsets. The negotiation of new mindsets can be divided roughly into three major phases.

1 – The reorientation phase to overcome disorientation;

2 – The prolonged crisis phase where we collect, interpret and negotiate our experiences;

3 – The transition phase is when we negotiate which new mindsets we will abandon and which ones pass on to be the new norm.

Image: Terror attacks and epidemics impact travel behavior. But usually these behaviors bounce back to pre-crisis levels within a short period of time, narratives like Xenophobia on the other hand can persist for decades.

From propaganda to social media and personal conversations, all forms of communication ultimately result in normalising narratives, norms, emotions, identities, and values during these stages. When adopting new mindset factors, people tend to orient themselves with and by their peers.

From propaganda to social media and personal conversations, all forms of communication ultimately result in normalising narratives, norms, emotions, identities, and values during these stages. When adopting new mindset factors, people tend to orient themselves with and by their peers.

Not only are narratives and norms negotiated, but also feelings and identities. Xenophobia and ‘othering’ – defining who is in and out – are often a result from crises. Xenophobia extends far beyond the identity of the parties involved in a violent conflict (e.g. war, terrorist attacks). For example, Asian phobia in the USA was observed after Pearl Harbour, and Anti-Islamism (or general xenophobia) was observed in the USA and Europe after terrorist attacks. Xenophobia can even reach people in countries not directly affected if they feel their core values, like national security, are at risk.

The negotiation of new mindsets in society is not an egalitarian process. It is influenced by propaganda campaigns led by powerful entities […]

Values can also be renegotiated. Fear has proven a powerful motivator for people to shift core values or foster Norm Regress (the ‘death of a norm’). Governments have employed it to shift perceptions and pass laws that violate previously held values (e.g. norm regression on torture and civil rights, or the acceptance of extra-jurisdictional killings). Norms are amended through narratives (while torture is not acceptable, it becomes just when preventing a terrorist attack) and then perpetuated by social media and the entertainment industry.

The negotiation of new mindsets in society is not an egalitarian process. It is influenced by propaganda campaigns led by powerful entities, be it governments or interest groups. These groups use media and social media – including trolls – to spread information or disinformation to influence human minds. An example is the identity battle between China and Taiwan during the pandemic concerning their WHO status.  Negotiation processes of new mindsets can diverge between groups within societies leading to increased polarisation and fragmentation; it can also reduce political divides or shift alliances, sometimes affecting existing power and social structures.

[…] the sustainability of change depends on who holds the power to maintain these new systems.

Lasting change

After the crisis, new mindsets need to compete with the logic and convenience of the old. At the individual level, the willingness to maintain the change depends on its advantages and each individual’s agency to easily maintain them. However, the sustainability of change depends on who holds the power to maintain the new systems. For example, working from home needing employers’ approval.

Scientific research and public attention often focus on behaviour changes and how long they last after crises, such as using public transport or aeroplanes after terrorist attacks or epidemics, for example. When it comes to sustained behaviour change, crises tend to accelerate established trends, like work and commerce digitalisation, rather than create fundamental change, especially if regulatory4 and economic conditions return to pre-crisis status.

4 Be aware that the fear and disorientation of societies in crisis is often used by governments to introduce legislation that in other times might otherwise face resistance. Very common are regulations infringing on the individual rights and privacy after terror attacks (for example the patriot act)  as well as during epidemics.

3

From mindset
to system
impact

While it is tempting to evaluate crises in terms of changes in behaviour and power, we suggest that the real impact of crises must be looked for in the changes of mindsets. Positive or negative changes will weigh on systems for years and influence system change even after the crisis has ended.

Biases in perceiving the mindset impacts of a crisis

Everyone in general, changemakers in particular, need to be cautious not to fall prey to perception biases5 when it comes to a crisis. We tend to think that if a crisis is significant, then its impact ought to be equivalent. Or that, if it happens quickly, its effects are going to be quick, too. Both assumptions are wrong. Systems and societies have incredible short-term resilience and inherent resistance to prevent rapid change. Falling into these assumptions is dangerous as they lead changemakers to underestimate the real impact of crises.

Systems and societies have incredible short-term resilience and inherent resistance to prevent rapid change.

5 Perception bias is the tendency to form simplistic stereotypes and assumptions about certain groups of people or events, relying on subjective judgments and previous beliefs instead of objective information.

Image: When crises reveal or even enhance injustice and inequality in a country they can lead to civil unrest. Social anger can be suppressed by emergency regulations (curfew, social distancing) but may erupt as soon as these are lifted.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently published a study saying: “From the Plague of Justinian and the Black Death to the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, history is replete with examples of disease outbreaks casting long shadows of social repercussions: shaping politics, subverting the social order, and some ultimately causing social unrest.”

The IMF concludes: “Epidemics may have social scarring effects, increasing the likelihood of social unrest. They may also have a mitigating effect, suppressing unrest by dissuading social activities.” There’s an emotional build-up when experiencing injustice during a crisis. Social unrest might be avoided while the focus is on tackling the crisis (e.g. with social distancing) but will arise as soon as people’s minds move away from whatever that focus targets, such as protecting their health, for example. The social unrest in Colombia is an early example of this within the COVID-19 pandemic.

[…] it won’t be enough to be able to detect those changes; they must be influenced during the crisis and its aftermath.

Ultimately, the build-up of emotions (like anger, fear, optimism or pessimism), the building of narratives (e.g. of cooperation between individuals or nations), the growth of suspicion and ‘othering’, and even the change in identities or values (e.g. of feeling more connected to nature) will prove to be more critical in creating positive or negative social and systemic change than short-term practical and behavioural impacts (like the use of public transport, increased plastic consumption, or newly acquired hygiene habits). Based on this, it won’t be enough to be able to detect those changes; they must be influenced during the crisis and its aftermath. For example, the broad, diverse and visible coalition fighting to provide equitable worldwide access to vaccines. It not only creates a narrative putting people over profits when asking for patents on vaccine innovation to be dropped but also appeals to nations to overcome national economic interests to solve a global crisis. Such narratives will be essential to provide hope and broaden the imaginations of leaders and societies in solving future crises like climate change.

Similarly, the medium-term economic impacts of governmental spending on the economy and the livelihoods of millions of people will determine the mindsets of political and economic leaders to take similar measures when faced with similar crises in the future. This will help to determine which type of leadership and solidarity will be acceptable by the public. 

The story and, therefore, the memories of the crisis, will only reach its final shape long after the majority of the world has been vaccinated. The new mindsets that will finally emerge, that will shape our ability to deal with future challenges, are still malleable. 

What can
changemakers
do?

Use sensing, observation, and scenario planning to speed up your orientation.

Those that can evaluate a situation the quickest, can get a headstart. We give practical advice on how to do that and what to focus on when evaluating possible crisis trajectories.

Use the disorientation phase to create stories that land.

During this time people are confused, longing for explanation and certainty. You can introduce radically new stories, but they need to reestablish meanings, be coherent to old beliefs, and you need  to spread them wide and fast to be able to compete with other stories.

Shape the crisis experiences of your audience.

Changemakers cannot only match their messages of change to existing crisis experiences, but also strategically create experiences that reinforce the mindset change they want to create.

Shooting the rapids:
Creating change when the world is changing

Crisis – such as the current pandemic – have shown that different aspects of an individual’s mindsets can change during disruptive events. This type of event can deconstruct narratives (‘In today’s world epidemics only happen in Africa and Asia’), establish new norms (‘we don’t let our child play with other children anymore’), shape new identities (‘I feel like a victim’), create new values (‘we shall sacrifice to save others’ – universalism) or exacerbate emotions (the rise of fear, anger, hedonism, loneliness or gratitude). After a disruption has impacted individual mindsets, societies negotiate renewed collective mindsets, i.e. narratives, norms and values, through collective sense-making processes. This happens through diverse, mostly unstructured communication ranging from political discourse to social media chatter. Once our lived experiences have received a broader societal meaning and explanation, these mindset changes can catalyse sustained system change. 

Amidst the chaotic and rapidly changing crisis experiences, mindset changes might appear random or chaotic themselves. This leads to the belief that changemakers have little agency to influence them. But as we have shown here, mindset shifts during disruptions are catalysed by recognisable mechanisms and  specific distinguishable patterns. This not only allows us to foresee when and which changes are most likely to happen during a particular crisis, but it also enables informed changemakers to influence the direction in which culture is changing.

Let us know what you think!

Stefan Flothmann

Co-author

Ieva Rozentāle

Co-author

Christine McCagh

Christine McCagh

Co-author

In the upcoming publication – The Disrupted Mind series – we are going to focus on how psychological and social phases like the hero or the honeymoon phase, influence the creation of mindsets throughout a crisis. With these insights, you will be able to design effective interventions to catalyse mindset change. The Disrupted Mind: Handbook completes the series by providing changemakers with concrete advice on how to design projects to catalyse mindset change during disruptions.

Contact us at hello@mindworkslab.org for any inquiry or leave your email below so we can reach you when the next publication is out.