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the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Barry Schwartz, Social Psychology


Social Psychology

Barry Schwartz


Barry Schwartz is an Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Swarthmore College and a visiting Professor at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley. He has spent over 40 years researching the interaction between economics and morality. Dr. Schwartz has written several books that address aspects of this interaction, including the most recent Why We Work, and has spoken four times at TED conferences.

Transcription of the video


Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant positive societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

What the pandemic has done is, it made people appreciate relationships with other people more since that’s been so dramatically taken away. At least in affluent Western societies, we seem to be chasing stuff more, and people less, and this may get us to rearrange our priorities. Relatedly, and this comes to the surface, especially in connection with wearing masks in public, it may enhance our concern for the welfare of other people rather than just ourselves. It’s been undersold, that wearing masks is mostly to protect other people from you, and less to protect you from other people. If that had been sold more so that you would, in a sense, had this feeling of public responsibility for the welfare of others every time you went outside. I think that would enhance our sense that we’re all in this together, I think we have not taken sufficient advantage of the opportunity to emphasize that as a culture. Focusing less on me and more on we is likely to be a positive outcome.

What kind of wisdom will people need to capitalize on the positive societal and/or psychological change after the pandemic?

My own take on wisdom is very much inspired by Aristotle. And one of his central ideas is the importance of finding the mean, which he meant as the right amount, not the average, but the right amount. Lots of virtues become liabilities, become vices when they are carried to an extreme. One of the things we have to do is find the mean, between me and we. You can’t forsake your responsibilities to yourself. You also have to take seriously the responsibilities for other people. And it takes judgment, especially in this uncertain world to find the right balance between those two. Second, essential for wisdom is perspective taking, being able to see the world as other people see it so that you can be helpful to them. And in these uncertain times, actually being able to be helpful to other people demands that we understand what life is like for them, so that our interventions can be useful. Building up our perspective-taking muscle will make us wiser. And the last is, there is I think, a trade off in general, between freedom on the one hand and security on the other. Here too, we need to find the mean. In Western affluent societies, we have largely taken security for granted. And we have emphasized freedom, freedom, freedom. The pandemic is demanding that we find a way to balance our legitimate concerns about freedom and autonomy with equally legitimate concerns about security and finding the right balance between those two will require us to develop a kind of situation -by-situation judgment. There’s no rule, there’s no formula that will enable us to  find the sweet spot where we don’t take security for granted and we don’t forsake all freedom.

Which domain or aspect of social life will show the most significant negative societal and/or psychological change in response to the pandemic?

When people are threatened, when people perceive real danger, they kind of pull in, and they focus entirely on themselves. And so it seems to me in a moment of enormous uncertainty and high risk, one way to go is to worry about the welfare of other people. Another way to go is to essentially erase the welfare of other people from your consideration altogether and wake up every day with the idea that it’s all about me. I don’t think anyone does, it partly depends on how long it lasts, it partly depends on how much more serious it becomes as a health problem. It partly depends on how much more serious it becomes as an economic problem. But I can see people at one another’s throats in a few months, rather than looking to provide aid. I think we have to really worry about the anti-social consequences, immoral consequences that could arise if the situation gets desperate enough. I don’t know what you can do about it except to have your eyes open and try to find ways to step in and ameliorate if this negative turn starts to appear.

What kind of wisdom will people need to master to overcome major negative societal and/or psychological changes after the pandemic?

It would help people if they ask themselves, what does it mean to be a good person and what does it mean to live a good life, a life that you would be happy to pass on to your children, a life that you would be happy to endorse and promote for other people. If you ask yourself that question on a regular basis, it may suppress the temptation to be too me focused, when that bad stuff starts to get worse. People will miss their contact with other human beings. People already do. That’s a visceral absence that may spur people to pay attention to how important human contact is, and what it requires of us to be able to generate and sustain the kind of human contact that makes life worth living. I also think it would not be a bad idea to have a kind of mantra that we start every day with, that reminds us of what it is that makes for a good satisfying human life.

What piece of wisdom do people need to make it through the pandemic?

The most important piece of wisdom for people to have now is that there are no rules that get us out of this dilemma. That balancing between me and we, balancing between freedom and security, those sorts of balances require judgment. They require judgment, because there’s no formula. They require judgment because circumstances change on a daily, maybe even hourly basis. And so each of us has to sort of figure out for ourselves, and the particular circumstances we’re living in and the people who depend on us and what they need, how those balances get maintained, how to balance our concern for others with what we need, and how to balance our concern with being able to be free in the world, with our concern about being protected and secure.
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