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the changes ahead?
How do we navigate
the changes ahead?
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Michael Norton, Consumer & Social Psychology


Consumer & Social Psychology

Michael Norton


Michael I. Norton is the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. In 2012, he was selected for Wired Magazine’s Smart List as one of “50 People Who Will Change the World” and his TEDx talk, How to Buy Happiness, has been viewed more than 4 million times. He has co – authored Happy Money, and is currently writing The Ritual Effect.

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?

One of the things that I think the pandemic has really highlighted even more than it was already being highlighted is inequality, not just income but in health outcomes. If you look at the people who are most affected by COVID, it’s older people, it’s people with pre-existing health conditions, it’s lower income people, all people who are vulnerable in one way or another. And the pandemic sort of throws that into stark relief, even though we’re aware of it, now we can really see how this plays out in the health domain. My hope is that people will see inequality in a different way than they were seeing it before and hopefully be more motivated to do something about it.


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

We’ve seen in our research for 10 years now that people are pretty unaware of inequality. They’re aware that things aren’t equal, but they’re often really not aware of the extent of inequality. And we’ve been looking for ways to help people understand the extent of inequality, so that they might be more motivated to do something about it. I think when these unfortunate events happen, but they show us the world as it really is, the goal is that that knowledge will then help people behave differently going forward and think differently about the distribution of things, not just money, and not just wealth, but health and life and things that we really hold dear.


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

I think this is going to vary a lot by country-to-country and by city-to-city and even by neighborhood to neighborhood. But, the role of trust in everyday life, I think, has taken a big hit. Both trust in big institutions like government and health agencies across the world, but also local trust in your local governments, and even in your neighbors and in your communities. Because we’ve been so isolated, and because we got hit by such a negative, external blow, it’s hard to trust anymore. When things are going so badly, it’s hard to know that you could ever trust again a big organization or even the people in your community. So there is, I think, a real worry, that that trust won’t rebound a little bit so that we can have some faith in institutions and have some faith in our communities as we move forward.


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

Trust is such a funny word because we know it’s so important. Everyone would say trust is important in government and in your relationships and things like that. But, it also often feels nebulous. What does it mean to trust somebody or not trust somebody? My sense is that trust has been so broken that it will take quite some time and a lot of actions to build it back up. So you’ll need to see that people in your community can be trusted, for example, to take care of your health by taking care of their own health. And you’ll need to see that institutions can actually deliver on the promises that they have been supposed to be delivering on. And that’s going to take some time and also some understanding in order to build it back up.


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

Another thing that we’ve been working on for quite some time is the role of rituals in people’s everyday lives. I don’t mean rituals, like religious ceremonies, although those help too. But I mean little rituals that we all have with our romantic partners and in our families and with our co-workers. And those all got really disrupted during COVID, for a million different reasons, because our lives got turned upside down. And we’ve been looking, actually, to see at when people are developing new rituals and new routines in life, how that can help them deal with the stress of what’s happening a little bit more. For example, parents who develop new rituals with their young children around mask-wearing and handwashing feel better about their parenting because they’re taking control, and they’re engaging in rituals with their kids. By rituals, by the way, I mean, first the bunny says something and then we read this other book. I don’t mean rituals in a scary way. But these little rituals that people bring on board with grief, for example. We can show that they actually really can help you cope with these issues. They can’t solve them, but they can help people cope with them.

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