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How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Jean Twenge, Social Psychology


Social Psychology

Jean Twenge


Jean M. Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, is the author of more than 140 scientific publications and six books, the latest of which is iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. She holds a BA and MA from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

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

One of the most positive changes is something we’re already seeing, which is in political activism. That, maybe, this might be the end of apathy. Maybe we’ll get better voter turnout. Assuming we can find a way to do that safely. That we have more people who are going to  volunteer to work for a campaign. We’ve already seen a big protests for racial justice, a lot of movement around reform around police brutality and so on, that there’s just more interest in the civic sphere and in getting involved, and changing government and public policies and so on.

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

This is where it gets challenging, even though this is such a big positive, we’re seeing more people who are interested in social and civic issues, there’s ways to do that that will have a bigger impact than other ways. Bringing visibility to these issues is going to be the first step. And that’s already happening. But the challenge and the wisdom that people are going to have to tap into here is to think about where can we have the most impact? Protests have had big impact already. But then the next steps are often the more challenging, because you have to figure out: what is the next thing after that? Is it grassroots programs for voter turnout, specific candidates going to work on specific policies, things like that, that will probably end up having the biggest impact. The challenge is going to be trying to find those things, as opposed to some things that may not be as effective. And this is where, it remains to be seen what the most effective things are. Generally speaking, things that are not effective are those that divide other people, that attack other people, that increase political polarization, that vilify you people who disagree with you. My hope is that we’ll end up seeing a lot of positive change from this, in terms of policy in terms of civic and government involvement, and that we can try to do this together in a way that’s not as divisive. I’m not at all trying to say that this is an easy thing. It’s a difficult thing in today’s political climate. But I’m hopeful that it can happen and that focus is on that concrete action, rather than quite so much on appearances and quite so much on cancel culture and attacking certain people.

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

The most negative thing that’s happening right now is around mental health. And I have a paper out on that, that’s a preprint, and there’s several other studies, one I just saw today, from those who administer the General Social Survey, they sample in May, looking at happiness and happiness is at a 50 year low. And we find in our paper, big increases in mental distress. There’s census data, US Census Bureau administer data, looking at anxiety and depression that is also increased by quite a bit during the pandemic. I think it’s really clear that we have a mental health crisis on our hands. So we have to keep that in mind, that that’s real. That yes, you know, sometimes you’re gonna have great examples of resilience and there are a lot of positives, but that for a significant number of people looks like it’s up to a third of people, there’s some pretty serious mental distress, anxiety and depression going on, probably from the social isolation, from the anxiety around possibly catching the illness, and, of course around economic disruptions, which don’t look like they’re going away anytime soon.

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

I think one thing that has already happened is more of a move to telehealth for appointments, for therapy, and that needs to continue and those regulations need to continue to be loosened so insurance will pay for that, so providers can be reimbursed for it and so on. Beyond that, so much of it has to do with just solving the problems the pandemic has created, the thing that everybody’s trying to figure out, how to open up the economy without having an increase in cases. A lot of it is also around social isolation. This pandemic has really shown, it’s really laid bare a problem that was there to begin with, in a lot of Western democracies, which deal in person, but by videoconference or FaceTime. Basically, if I really wanted to boil down what I’m saying is call your grandma. And just keep in touch with those relationships because there’s just a lot of loneliness out there.

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

There’s been some real trade-offs in social life when it comes to the pandemic, and it has had some benefits, especially for folks spending more time with their kids. But there’s also these downsides that we felt isolated from other people around us. The main thing is just to make that effort in trying to stay in touch with friends and family and try to keep up with those relationships, even though we can’t always do them in the way that we did in 2019. To try to support each other and still focus on those relationships, and focus on real time communication, as opposed to being so tempted as we all are, to go to social media and to go to texting, and so on, which is not in real time, and it has those performative aspects to it and just doesn’t seem to be as good for mental health as actually having a conversation.
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