The COVID-19 Arrow: Striking at the Heart of American Life and Culture

The COVID-19 Arrow: Striking at the Heart of American Life and Culture

It should also be noted that the changes in relationships are not always reported as positive by Dr. Silberberg (2020, p. 11). She notes the increase in domestic violence reported in Israeli publications. Similar increases are reported in the United States. These seem to exemplify the all-too-common social psychological phenomenon known as scapegoating or engagement of the frustration-aggression dynamic (Dollard, et. al, 1939). We are blocked from attaining a specific goal (such as protection from a virus). This creates frustration, which in turn sometimes generates a desire to strike out against the perceived source of the frustration. If one has little power (lack of internal locus of control), then the tendency is to direct this aggression against someone or something that is less powerful—such as a spouse, child or animal.  Tragically, this dynamic can also play out at a societal level. One of the most notable (and disturbing) examples of this dynamic playing out concerns a study done by the Yale Group regarding the high correlation to be found between crop failure and incidence of Black lynching in the American South. A similar cycle of violence might be playing out in Israel and the United States. It is particularly likely to be engaged if there is either a lack of community coherence (sociofugal setting) or a polarization of the community (for example, Black vs. White or Jew vs. Arab).

The Exponential Curve: As we turn to the plotting of the virus (infection, hospitalization, and death rates) on a graphic, we find an exponential curve in both individualistic and collective societies; however, because of the different ways in which social networks and super-spreader events operate in these two different societies, the curve looks a bit different. In general, when the virus impacts on a collectivist society with an enmeshed culture and many sociopetal social settings, there is a rapid early rise in the curve. However, it tends to flatten (as in Singapore) when the NPIs and inoculations are extensively engaged. There might be occasional spikes in the curve, but it tends to flatten off and then decline. By contrast, in a highly individualistic society, with a disengaged culture and many sociofugal social settings, there is likely to be a slow rise at first in the curve (since people are not connecting with one another), but than a dramatic spike and rapidly accelerating rate of infections, hospitalizations and death as the isolated social networks produce super-spreader events that connect all units of the society.

As we have found in the United States, this spiking curve does eventually flatten out and even decline—but only after the negative (corrective) feedback is engaged through gradually shifting social attitudes, slowly (and often inconsistently) implemented public policy, and a fair amount of natural herd immunity (people getting the virus but remaining alive with natural immunization). The cost of individualism is great when a people-loving virus (such as COVID-19) “knocks on the door.” While the virus loves to connect with people, it finds that its greatest adversary over the long term is a collectivist society in which people also love to connect with one another.

The Push and Pull of Covid-19: Once again, I need to point out that everything is a bit confusing and even paradoxical when it comes to impact of the virus on American society. It seems that COVID has a powerfully diverse impact on people in a highly disengaged culture such as we find in the United States. The virus pulls people together while also driving people apart. COVID leads us to interact and care because people around us are hurting and are facing deadly challenges. A sociofugal setting is created. We are drawn to one another for comfort and care. It is hard to “go it alone” when facing a powerful but elusive foe such as Covid-19.

On the other hand, our individualistic inclinations in the United States are reinforced by the NPI policies of social distancing and staying at home.  The virus creates a setting in which we are encouraged to pull apart and can justify isolation. This sociofugal setting is aligned with our desire to go it alone or interact with only a small number of people (usually just our nuclear family—if this family exists in our life). As we will see as I move through the other themes introduced by Varda Silberberg, this pull toward and push away from other people seems to have a particularly pronounced impact in communities of the United States. Is it also to be found in other societies (such as Israel)? I suspect that this tension exists to varying extent in most societies of the Western world (and those Asian societies that have been strongly influenced by Western culture).


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William BergquistWilliam Bergquist, Ph.D. An international coach and consultant in the fields of psychology, management and public administration, author of more than 50 books, and president of a psychology institute. Dr. Bergquist consults on and writes about personal, group, organizational and societal transitions and transformations. His published work ranges from the personal transitions of men and women in their 50s and the struggles of men and women in recovering from strokes to the experiences of freedom among the men and women of Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In recent years, Bergquist has focused on the processes of organizational coaching. He is coauthor with Agnes Mura of coachbook, co-founder of the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations and co-founder of the International Consortium for Coaching in Organizations.

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