PROF. DR. JULIA PITTERS: PSYCHOLOGY IN TIMES OF CRISIS

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HOW THE COVID PANDEMIC IS AFFECTING PEOPLE' S MENTAL HEALTH

No term probably received more attention this year than “pandemic” or “COVID-19”. As the virus arrived, so did the panic. The consequences: Lockdown and profound restrictions on the usual routines of life. Prof. Dr. Pitters, business psychologist at IUBH International University of Applied Sciences, examines how we experience this threat in her latest work ‒ What followed shock and fear? What will be remembered in the future and what will we learn from this crisis? 

Erfurt, 20 October 2020 - In her latest book, "Psychology in Times of Crisis", Pitters focuses on the complex interplay between the state, organisations and people. In doing so, she addresses the entire ecosystem, at its micro, meso and macro levels. She identifies three phases of the crisis, ranging from the beginning of the pandemic to possible future scenarios.

 

Topic 1: Start of the crisis ‒ Fear

In the beginning, the invisible "enemy" was rather mocked and the idea of a pandemic seemed unimaginable. However, the threat came closer and closer, and eventually the entire world was plunged into a paralysing state of fear.

Fear is one of the strongest emotions and often leads to people experiencing a sense of being out of control. This feeling was further intensified by frightening images from surrounding countries, such as northern Italy, a lack of knowledge about the disease, as well as ambiguous and constantly changing communication of actions taken by the government. Additionally, the intensive but uncertain media presence of the virus further unsettles the population. This is accompanied by the reflex of a protective and defensive reaction, which often leads to impulsive actions.

 

Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two systems of decision-making. According to system 1, information for decision-making is taken quickly and intuitively, whereas system 2 involves a higher cognitive effort to weigh up different alternative actions in advance. Due to the increased stress level during the pandemic, actions such as hoarding purchases and increased cash withdrawals showed that the population acted according to system 1 for self-protection, which in retrospect often seemed irrational.

 

Topic 2: Life in times of crisis ‒ Longing for normality

Humans are not only social creatures, but also creatures of habit ‒ this became increasingly evident during the crisis. The unprecedented emergency caused the population to show overwhelming solidarity, at least at first. After all, people find it generally difficult to suppress traditional social behaviour and refrain from physical proximity. The restrictions on individual life needs, workplace and education environments, as well as severe decisions made by the state, affect the entire population and pose different challenges. In general, however, there is an emerging insecurity due to the break-up of familiar structures. The resulting unfriendliness and even loneliness, which often appears superficial, increases the risk of mental illness by 25%, as well as the risk of death, according to the Red Cross.

 

Topic 3: Looking ahead - Challenges and exhaustion

Initially, the blockage resulting from insecurity and distance from one's fellow human beings was processed psychologically through audacious "COVID jokes" and humour in order to regain a degree of lightness within the stressful situation. Many citizens also tried to create "the best" out of the hopeless situation through coping strategies and new hobbies. But with growing attempts and many endeavours, the effort required also increases, resulting in exhaustion. This is soon followed by resistance and the will to regain lost liberty. Vaccines, which have been eagerly awaited for a long time, continue to be unavailable and, on top of that, have a negative effect on the mood. Moreover, the economic as well as socio-political challenges that follow seem to continue or even worsen. The initial discipline is fading and the population is looking for a shared scapegoat (conspiracy theories). From a psychological perspective, the pursuit of a common goal has always been important for humanity to restore peace, which is why such archaic ritual behaviour patterns are constantly repeated. After all, people evaluate their initial situation emotionally and according to topicality and forget very quickly to take past information into account.

 

About Prof. Dr. Julia Pitters:

Julia Pitters is a professor at IUBH International University of Applied Sciences, where she heads the Business Psychology programme and is also a partner at the consulting firm Pitters℗ TRENDEXPERT. She previously served as a consultant for the Silicon Valley fintech AltX. She studied psychology and sociology at the universities of Würzburg and Hamburg and earned her doctorate in tax psychology at the University of Vienna. As an assistant professor, she covered the field of business psychology at Webster University for six years and has published in numerous international journals. She is a sworn-in and court-certified expert.

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