There is something strange about people rallying against safety measures during a pandemic. Yet that is exactly what went down on the 15th of April in Michigan, USA. After the stay-at-home order was extended for two more weeks, dissenting citizens shut down the streets of Lansing and gathered on the steps of the State Capitol to demand the end of the lockdown.
Soon, more states reported new demonstrations with similar messages. Outside of the USA, people in disagreement with the COVID-19 safety measures have also called for the end of government restrictions. Citizens in Germany, Australia, Brazil, Chile, and the UK have also clashed with authorities over their right to go out, shop freely, eat in restaurants, and get haircuts and massages.
Irrational behaviours are often considered as being a wild disconnection from reality. After all, why would anyone risk their health for a service that is ultimately considered a luxury? Maybe it’s because those risking it believe that the pandemic isn’t as serious as the media portrays it to be, despite ample evidence and expert advice. Or maybe people are just so bored that protesting is now a cool way of killing time.
We argue that things aren’t as simple as they seem and that context is always important. We believe that the goal of this social movement is not to reinstate hair salons and spas, but to defend one’s right to access these services. It is not exclusively about the closed businesses, but about people’s emotions and thoughts that have been triggered by the lockdown.
The goal of this article is to explain why people are protesting the lockdown for haircuts. We use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as a map to see how the lockdown threatens the requirements for leading a happy, healthy life. We particularly focus on the first four levels, which are called “deficiency needs”. These are the elements that, when deprived of, prevent us from reaching a stable state where we can focus on personal growth.
We suggest that the pandemic and the subsequent measures have put people in a position where these needs are threatened, and that the protests are the ways in which the resulting frustration is directed.
The rise of the pandemic awoke a generalised feeling of uncertainty surrounding people’s living conditions: jobs and salaries were frozen overnight, which led to many people losing ability to pay the bills. Tenants couldn’t afford rent, those in debt could not pay loans, and crime and poverty increased.
Maslow considered physiological needs the most important as all the other needs become secondary until these needs are met. However, sleep and food are not the only basic requirements we need to nurture ourselves: health and autonomy are often seen as much needed in modern society. Without them, we feel constrained and unfulfilled. As the lockdown imposed certain limitations to people’s habits and their normal life, their sense of freedom was threatened. Ultimately, their discontent isn’t about hair salons and coffee shops closing down; it’s about demanding the power to choose when to have a coffee or get a massage.
When people’s freedom is deprived, they get angry. This anger is the product of biological reactions in the brain. Much like imprisonment, people under lockdown have increased levels of adrenaline and stress hormones that lead to a state of hyperarousal. This is known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ state. By this point, all it takes for a person to take to the streets and ignore public advice is an outlet for their discomfort. In this case, it is the premise that the lockdown goes against their rights.
As German protestors chanted “I want my life back”, American protestors called lockdown measures “arbitrary and unconstitutional”. Many felt that their livelihoods were being threatened as a result of lost jobs and income, hence the inability to meet their monthly demands. This meant that people’s choices were diminished, and above all, their freedom to choose was taken away. The ability to make choices and having control over our lives offers certainty as us humans have a set daily routine. This makes our world clearer, more predictable and orderly.
The economic impact of the coronavirus has translated into higher levels of unemployment across Europe and the United States, heightening levels of uncertainty and anxiety. Loss of work makes people feel more insecure and more distressed as a result of greater uncertainty. In order to try and regain control, people might cling to their past and act for the sake of acting, hoping to find value in doing so. This is known as action bias. The motivation to act—in this case, breaking or following social distancing rules—doesn’t necessarily have to be in line with the majority, so long as we feel that our opinion is shared by others. This offers us a sense of belonging. Our satisfaction is maximised when we feel a sense of security, and this happens when fellow human beings contribute to our collective existence.
People strive to engage in affectionate relationships, and these needs appear to have been most conspicuously denied to us with social distancing. Thus, resisting stay-at-home orders may be explained by this drive towards spending time with friends and loved ones. One survey has even shown that extroverts are more likely to break lockdown.
This need also involves the desire to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in one’s social groups, such as our nation or political party. Groups indicate a set of appropriate social norms that contribute largely to our social behaviour. Compliance to social distancing is motivated by a sense of shared identity and a feeling of “we’re in this together”. When prominent public figures visibly flout these norms, people may be put off from cooperating. So when Dominic Cummings drives 260 miles during travel restrictions or when President Trump tweets “LIBERATE” to encourage anti-lockdown protests, they damage public solidarity. These actions signal new norms that supporters are likely to follow. In fact, the largest increase in protests in the US has been in red states that have Democratic governors, explained by a possible lack of trust in a government run by the opposing party [11,12].
Self-esteem is a concept closely related to how we perceive ourselves. Since humans are very social creatures, our idea of the self is tightly intertwined with our social context. The pandemic has inevitably modified our interactions with peers and forced us to rethink what is socially acceptable and what is not.
Is, for example, wearing a mask and respecting distancing socially acceptable? You may have a very straightforward opinion about this (hopefully you think that it is)—chances are most people around you share the same mindset. The more dominant this stance is in your social context, the more ingrained it is in your social identity. When you find someone who doesn’t follow the same idea and insists on skipping lockdown and going outside without protection, you start to feel a sense of disapproval. It’s the same for people in a group that is primarily against quarantining when they see someone following the guidelines. This is known as the “black sheep effect”.
Policing our peers when they don’t behave in accordance with our implicit social norms is instinctive. We depend on cohesion as a community and adherence to these norms to ensure structure and organisation. When this instinct faces external conflict that doesn’t abide or respect one’s social norms, discomfort and resistance arise. Such reactions are particularly strong when leadership figures share the sentiment and support resistance, even if it is irrational.
Summing up the anti-lockdown protests across the world in one sentence would be a gross underestimation. Although their premise seems to be shallow in nature when taken at face value, the demonstrations are actually about our sense of freedom, self-regulation, ideological alignment, and sense of community. To judge whether or not this justifies ignoring public health recommendations and restrictions would be beyond the scope of this article. What we are trying to point out is that even if the protestors themselves do not recognise the driving instincts behind their decisions, there are important underlying needs that have been affected by the lockdown and the social distancing. In order to reconcile those who are against government regulations with new habits, these needs must be acknowledged by future public policies.
- Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review 50(4), 370-96.
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- Jackson, J., Solymosi, R., Posch, C., Bradford, B., Hobson, Z., Kyprianides, A., & Yesberg, J. (2020, May 26). The Cummings row undermines the sense of collective solidarity on which the lockdown relies. Retrieved 23 June, 2020 from: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/lockdown-compliance-may/
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