Cultural Defaults in the Time of Coronavirus: Lessons for the Future

Monday, Nov. 13, 2023 (3:30 PM – 5:00 PM)

Hazel Markus

Stanford University

During the COVID-19 pandemic, societies faced the challenge of an unknown and potentially deadly disease. While many questions about the pandemic remain unanswered, it is evident that countries like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea outperformed the United States in responding to and controlling the outbreak, particularly in its early stages. While many factors are implicated, a comprehensive understanding of this difference requires attention to the variation in common sense and to the meaning systems that ground and organize these contexts. Our goal is both scientific and practical. We identify some common existential questions that emerged during various stages of the pandemic: “Will it happen to us?”, “What should I/we do?”, and “How should I/we live now,?” and propose that how people answered these questions and made sense of the pandemic reflects the influence of tacit but foundational models of agency and their associated cognitive, affective, and motivational psychological defaults.    

In the United States, where a predominant model of agency emphasizes the independence of the individual, these psychological defaults include optimism-uniqueness; single causes; high arousal; influence and control; personal choice and self-regulation; and promotion. In Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, where a predominant model of agency emphasizes the interdependence of individuals, these psychological defaults include realism-similarity, multiple causes; low arousal; wait and adjust; social choice and social regulation; and prevention. Integrating research from decades of empirical research in social and cultural psychology, we describe how these cultural defaults operated together, influencing commonly observed behavioral patterns and decision making throughout the pandemic. Although much more research is necessary in many unexamined contexts of the world, in the well-researched areas described here, we suggest how to incorporate a consideration of cultural models and psychological defaults into guidelines for decision making and planning for future crises.

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