Could COVID-19 Spark Lasting Change?: Background information when reading The Catalyst

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The Catalyst

How to Change Anyone's Mind

by Jonah Berger

The Catalyst by Jonah Berger X
The Catalyst by Jonah Berger
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2020, 288 pages

    Feb 2022, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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About this Book

Could COVID-19 Spark Lasting Change?

This article relates to The Catalyst

Print Review

Setting people on a path to change is difficult. And when you're talking about millions of people, it often takes decades to see a mass evolution in behavior. Sometimes, however, a cataclysmic event will act as a catalyst that forces society as a whole to step off the precipice. Such events (e.g., the Great Depression, World War II, Chernobyl) dramatically shift people's frame of thought to such an extent that change is inevitable. In essence, cataclysmic events remove the five hurdles that prevent change, according to Jonah Berger: reactance, endowment, distance, uncertainty, and lack of corroborating evidence.

The current COVID-19 pandemic is cataclysmic. It will be the defining event of many of our lifetimes—at least, we can hope nothing worse lurks on the horizon. It has already changed how people interact with one another and go about their daily lives. When it eventually passes, it will leave a lasting impression on society for decades to come.

By removing barriers to change—forcefully in this case—the pandemic is acting as a catalyst for rapid social change. Below, I outline five changes to society that people have been advocating for, with limited success, for decades. I use Jonah Berger's five principles of persuasion to show how the pandemic will help society overcome its reluctance to evolve in these areas, leaving a permanent imprint.

Working from Home
Telecommuting has been discussed, tried and aborted for decades in many industries. Technology has advanced to the point where many white-collar jobs can be conducted from one's living room, but for various reasons, corporate leadership has had a difficult time giving up on centralized oversight of employees.

The pandemic changes this. Now, companies whose employees can work from home are more likely to weather the pandemic and survive. Those that are not able to shift work remotely, either due to their industry or because they have not built the infrastructure to prepare for it, are most likely to falter. Moreover, individual employees who felt they would never want to work from home may find their reluctance abating. As some companies do not see a decrease in productivity and also realize cost savings by not paying commercial rent, forcing employees back to centralized offices may not make economic sense.

Though disruptive, the pandemic overcomes reactance, endowment and uncertainty, and provides corroborating evidence (in some cases) for telecommuting. It also alleviates what Berger would call the "distance" in expectations between workers and employers. By being forced to figure out telecommuting together, compromises can be reached between these two groups. Though some jobs must be done in person, openness to telecommuting should endure after the pandemic.

Online Education
For-profit universities were the first to wade into online education. In many cases, these institutions gave online credentials and degrees a bad reputation. They became seen as diploma mills. This negatively impacted the willingness of non-profit higher education institutions to offer online education. Administrative uncertainty about curriculum quality, business models based on students being in-residence and concern about public image resulted in universities creating online curriculums that were treated, by many, as inferior to their in-person equivalents.

However, the pandemic has forced almost every university in the US (and around many parts of the world) to embrace online education. Millions of children—primary through high school—are now learning online. The pandemic has required society to overcome uncertainty about and reactance to online education, as well as our status-quo beliefs about the benefits of in-person learning. Though, inevitably many will have poor or mediocre learning experiences right now as courses are forced online with no time for quality assurance or educator training, online education is no longer niche. It is now part of everyone's shared experience.

Students who would have been reluctant to learn online may be more willing to give a quality program a try (overcoming Berger's distance hurdle). Universities that realize the reach and efficiency of online education will overcome the status-quo of thinking in-person courses are by default superior. Children under 18 will expect the convenience of learning via video stream.

Will surgery be taught online? Probably not in the near future. History? Composition? Astronomy? Math? Psychology? Absolutely.

Retail Services
Brick-and-mortar retail had been under siege for many years with declining market share and fewer and fewer shopping options. Many forget that when Amazon began, people said no one would ever buy books online. As Jonah Berger elucidates in one example, investors ridiculed the founders of Zappos, stating that no one would ever buy shoes online.

The pandemic makes going to stores not only inconvenient but a public health nuisance. As stores are forced to close during the pandemic, more consumers are going to be exposed to the convenience of pick-up, delivery and shipping services. The Buy Local movement will continue to exist, certainly, but the local stores that survive will be those that deliver or offer pick-up. Reactance to these new modes of consumption will be reduced and distance between belief (shop locally) and action (order pick-up or delivery) will be mitigated via experience during the pandemic.

Media Consumption
As a Generation Xer who loves analog media, even I must admit—this pandemic likely spells the final death knell for printed books, video discs, CDs, magazines, video game cartridges, etc. Though this trend has been gaining steam for years, the pandemic will push some of the most ardent holdouts into streaming and digital consumption. Endowment—status quo—cannot be maintained when libraries are closed, mail delivery is interrupted, and buying used books puts your health at risk. The inability to access physical media will push people to try streaming and download services that they were previously adverse to. Libraries will of course reopen, but by the time the pandemic is over, checking out ebooks via an app will be more popular than ever.

Men Washing Their Hands When They Go to the Restroom
Anyone who has spent a modicum amount of time observing sink use in a men's restroom can tell you: most men don't wash their hands. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by research, some of which shows that 69 percent of men never wash their hands in public restrooms. If there's one way the COVID-19 pandemic could positively impact society, it would be if all men (or even most) start washing their hands every time they go to the bathroom. The number of bacteria and viruses that would be eliminated from everyday circulation would boost the health of society.

Part of this change will come from minimizing what Berger refers to as "distance" between current behavior and future behavior. Most people are probably washing their hands frequently right now. To continue to do so only when going to the bathroom will not be seen as that onerous once the pandemic passes. Also, corroborating evidence about the usefulness of washing hands in fighting germs is hard to avoid. If you did it to fight coronavirus, why not prevent the common cold with the same method?

In the end, if there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it is that cataclysms can result in societal catalysts for the good of humankind. A pandemic can help society move forward, beyond its uncertainty, belief in the status quo, and natural resistance to change. If you see these innovations as positive developments, as I do, perhaps they can provide you with a ray of light to help you through dark times.

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Ian Muehlenhaus

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Catalyst. It originally ran in April 2020 and has been updated for the February 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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