Online does not stop us, it reinvents us


Can you please tell us more about  your research published in Cremona Food Lab, on people’s ability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic on a psychological level?

The research group started five days after the first patient was identified in Codogno, February 2020. We launched a monitoring programme which is now in its fourth edition: the first began at the start of the pandemic, then there was one at the beginning of phase two just before the reopening of the schools, and the last edition was before the winter holidays, December 2020. We are monitoring people’s concerns and sense of vulnerability for the health and economic situation connected to COVID-19 (that is, the repercussions in terms of prevention but also in terms of trust and optimism for the personal and national economic situation). We are evaluating two kinds of repercussions that affect people’s behaviour: prevention (how Italians are proactive, active and adhering to safety measures), and food (how and to what extent nutrition is impacted by the pandemic, being the crossroads between personal and economic observation).
We have carried out another study recently, which relates to the concerns of the vaccination, as the vaccine is another element that will become a historical turning point for the pandemic. Below is a summary of some facts: 

  • Italians continue to be concerned about the health situation and vulnerability to the virus, as well as for the economic condition, regardless of their purchasing power and economic status.
  • The level of engagement decreases (that is, the perception of being the key player of prevention), and of self-efficacy in preventing infection (that is, the capacity of being able to change things).
  • The general population suffers from pandemic fatigue caused by very strong emotional stressors. There is a general sense of uncertainty that demolishes the traditional anchors that usually help to envision the future and organise behaviours. There is a general frustration due to the lack of control over the situation. From a health point of view, the situation is worrying. We make behavioural insight and intelligence based on the dynamics related to health issues as well as from a nutritional point of view. Seeing this constant state of emotional strain on the one hand, which is leading to psychological symptoms (we already have data on anxious-depressive symptoms and burnout), and on the other hand, the decreased sense of being able to resolve a personal issue, put at stake all the preventive measures. We believe that the only strategy to manage the pandemic is to manage our behaviour, how we decide to react to the situation. As Health Psychologists, we think that there has been little use of behavioural insights by authorities and institutions. There is a need to carry out listening activities to better target the support measures. If people suffer from fatigue, frustration or burnout, there is no need to continuously pinpoint Italians by saying they are irresponsible because they crowd the shops or do not follow the rules, Italians are tired. There should be a better balance between the “carrot and stick.”


Have there been any changes since the first evaluation?

Everything is constantly changing and evolving. We have psychological parameters that try to capture people’s changing moods, concerns, and emotions. We believe that behaviours are the tip of the iceberg, its root is deeper and larger, made up of often unconscious and irrational motivations and feelings, they are the drivers of our behaviour. It is obvious to psychologists as to why the “Immuni contact-tracing app” has not been popular whilst many more people downloaded the “IO” app. IO has been considered a profit, that is, you receive a certain percentage of your expenses. Immuni on the other hand has been proposed as a tool for tracing the spread of the virus and therefore perceived as a limit of freedom. As psychologists, we know that a loss from the psychological point of view weighs more than a gain, even if it is of an equal amount. We prefer not to lose 100 euros than gain 150. We cannot be surprised by this behaviour, nor can we be satisfied with the reasons people give for privacy. Privacy issues are still there even if I monitor what I spend. Immuni would have worked differently, if only it had been communicated as gaining something (health or freedom), even if it is something you cannot touch, but something that you could evaluate and measure.

A quote from sole24ore read: “The younger and more culturally evolved groups of the population do not react positively to traditional communication approaches that leverage the sense of fear.” What changes should we make in order to achieve a more extensive collaboration among the younger generations? We as a university address that same segment of the population (young and culturally driven people). How can we best approach them?

Fear works only in the short term. At the beginning of the pandemic, March 2020, the media emphasised fear so everyone was on the balconies singing and saying “everything will be okay,” but it only worked for a very short amount of time. Fear must also be properly weighed up, it must be realistic and manageable. All the studies on fear tell us how people process the emotional messages that are proposed by communication. If the fear is excessive and you do not feel you have the competence to handle it, we deny it or find strategies to protect ourselves. It is like smoking: many people continue to smoke, despite images of tumours on the package. Fear has to be measured, it is okay but just for a little while.

In general, irony and sarcasm work better with young people. However, in the long run, there should be an authentic, engaging, and participatory communication strategy. Largely young people have been on the hunt for the culprits of the spread of the virus. I think that this is evident through the unorthodox behaviour among young people. Our middle-aged adults are responsible for delivering convincing messages and setting examples. We have to stop pinpointing the younger generations who are already under attack: their traditional learning methods have been compromised and their social life has been limited. I think the middle generation is to blame for their reactions, and although as parents this is difficult, we must reassure young people, trust them, and give them a future to look forward to. Young people are more resilient and creative than us, they are more mature than we think so let’s treat them like this and value their resources. Let’s aim to plan what the world will be like post-COVID-19 rather than linger here with uncertainty and fear.

This is a beautiful and positive message. Not only to fossilise on what is currently happening but to look towards the future s something we can design together with the younger generations.

I believe there is an obligation to plan their future differently. Being forced to stop our “normal” lifestyle means using that time to stimulate creativity to invent a better future. Instead, we are only penalising young people and blocking them, but this trust must be instilled by the middle generation. 

Can you please comment on Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore’s strategy to keep teaching face-to-face as long as it was possible? How can we reconcile psychological well-being with remote work/study, bearing in mind this response from Cattolica?

We must stop making comparisons with what the world used to be like and will no longer be because this only limits our ability to make the most of this modality. The way of learning and teaching that we are experimenting and building together is different. It is neither better nor worse, it is just different. From my point of view, these months have been tiring but they have also opened very new and more effective ways to interact with students who have become notably less shy. With online learning, everyone is taking part, whereas in a physical classroom only students in the first two rows were interacting. I think it is different, and it is important to be able to understand what is good in all these elements of diversity without only focusing on what we have lost. What has changed is obvious, so let’s think deeper.

We cannot say that everything is bad. I think those who did not approve of online teaching at the beginning of the pandemic have now changed their minds after seeing that some elements have turned out to be surprisingly positive. There is no doubt that the beauty of the campus, the social aspects, etc are lost for now. However, I can pay more attention to students when they are online, they do not have to wait in line outside my office to discuss their projects with me. We will see the effects of this new way of teaching and learning in a few years. What is important for now is to understand how a new medium can enhance the characteristics of teaching.

Young people are digital natives, they live and do everything online. They have several social media accounts and as a result, the education system can learn how to interact with new concepts in innovative ways. We must compensate for the physical and social aspects which are currently missing but they will surely return. Although I am overwhelmed, I must say that I have learnt to teach and create a bond with my students in a very different way. Overall, the students are happy with the quality of teaching in Cattolica. After all, the value of teaching does not depend on online or offline. You can have a humanistic approach even if you do not physically meet up with the students. Additionally, during this period we are even more exhausted because we are working with many international contacts. At Università Cattolica we are one step ahead, both in the scientific and the humanistic areas. Online does not stop us, it reinvents us. We discovered an extra string in our bow. When we come back in presence, we will have acquired this competence too.