Accepters say they followed the lockdown rules almost all the time and didn’t feel particularly disturbed by it (e.g. they haven’t lost sleep or felt anxious or depressed). Interestingly though, accepters don’t believe that life will return to normal any time soon, they seem to put their trust in the government, and spend less time compared to the other two groups checking the internet or social media for updates on coronavirus.
Sufferers however did report feeling much more anxious and depressed than the other two groups since
lockdown was introduced and have worse sleeping patterns. They tended to follow the lockdown rules completely – often more than the other groups – and supported the lockdown measures. However, this group didn’t trust the government, believing that it acted too slowly, and that it uses misinformation. Suffers are likely to check the internet or social media daily for updates on coronavirus.
Resisting people only complied with the lockdown rules 50% of the time and did not support the measures imposed by the government, believing that too much fuss was being made. In fact, these people would often secretly go against official guidance, such as meeting up with friends outside the home or going outside during curfew. And this group were much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, such as the coronavirus being created in a lab and deliberately spread. Finally, this group checked the internet or social media for updates on the virus much more often than the other two groups.
What do these responses to the lockdown tell us about differences in how our brains function?
Research suggests that there are three types of conformity behaviour in any given population: compliance, identification and internalisation. Compliance is when we pretend to go along with things but really, we resist them. Identification is when we partly comply with the rules but then change our minds, back to our original beliefs, when in private. Internalisation, however, is when we fully – both in public and in private – accept the rules, even if they go against the norm. And this is what we have seen throughout lockdown across the world.
People who tend to accept rapidly changing rules imposed by their government, tend to have unwavering, deeply held beliefs in tradition and power. Such people are likely to have internalised beliefs about authority that contribute to their sense of self, which can often reflect in increased ventromedial prefrontal activity. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex is linked to self-representation, control of emotion, reward and goal-oriented behaviour. In the suffering group are people who try –but struggle – to accept rules imposed on them, have difficulties with emotion regulation and are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. This is represented in the brain as reduced dorsolateral prefrontal cortex activation and increased anterior cingulate cortex/amygdala activation. These brain regions are linked to cognitive control and emotional arousal, respectively. Finally, those who resist the lockdown rules are perhaps the least emotionally influenced by changing rules, because they are already engaged in high emotional responses to the environment – typical of the younger group who constituted those who resisted lockdown. Additional societal changes seem to overburden an already-overloaded prefrontal executive control system in the younger group. And since an overburdened prefrontal cortex is costly for the brain’s energy reserves, a choice has to be made between behaviours that are associated with having a strong peer-group identity, such as flouting lockdown rules by continuing to socialise with friends, or behaviours that represent parental control, such as adhering to societal rules.
With these ideas in mind, in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand we are currently testing how cognitions and emotions function across the three groups that respond so differently to lockdown rules. Thankfully President Cyril Ramaphosa has now lifted the lockdown restrictions to level 1 – but think about how you coped with the lockdown measures, and what it might tell you about how your brain functions!
Have a wonderful time enjoying the relaxed lockdown Harfielders, but remember to continue adhering to the rules (face masks, social distancing) that keep us all safe!
Click to read all previous articles by Dr Samantha J. Brooks Ph.D.