March 30, 2021Print | PDF
With her unique research focus on identity, motivated social cognition and subjective time, journalists have regularly called on Anne Wilson’s expertise during the COVID-19 pandemic for articles such as “Why Groundhog Day feels like the perfect symbol of our pandemic year.”
A professor of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, we asked Wilson what her research can tell us about maintaining well-being and the impacts of political polarization on public health.
How has your research translated into media commentary?
Anne Wilson: “For many years, I have specialized in the psychology of time and how our subjective experience of time differs from our objective experience of clock or calendar time. I’ve had a lot of requests to explain this science, highlighting the common experience of feeling like time is going both fast and slow over the past year.
“My research also focuses on human well-being. This feels a bit weightier to discuss with the media because I know how significant some of the psychological challenges that people have been facing are. My research has found that short-term, day-to-day choices often play a big role in our well-being, and I think there’s some value in offering some small, manageable strategies to help us cope with what we’re dealing with. At the same time, I hesitate to suggest that any of these suggestions are cure-alls. We are facing so many issues that simply trying a few strategies for maintaining well-being is not going to be enough to change things for a lot of people under the circumstances.”
Have you conducted any research inspired by the pandemic?
AW: “One paper that just came out has to do with writing a letter to one’s future self and how that can help people to cope with the negative experiences and distress they are experiencing during COVID-19. The exercise reminds people that this too shall pass and that in the broader scheme of things, this is something that we’ll be able to look back on eventually and potentially recognize the ways in which we’ve grown and learned from it.”
You have also been doing research on political polarization. How does it apply to the pandemic discourse?
AW: “One of my areas of expertise is motivated reasoning. When people engage in what feels like rational critical thinking, we’re often unaware of the ways in which our goal of reaching a particular conclusion is shaping the way that we’re processing the evidence. It’s almost always the case that scientists disagree and evidence evolves, that perhaps one recommendation has been reversed and another recommendation has been put forward. That’s how science is supposed to work: we’re supposed to embrace uncertainty and to correct things when we discover that we were incorrect. But anybody who is motivated to find fault in the science will be able to find it based on the position they are aiming to end with.
“We have some ongoing research looking at the ways in which polarization may play a role in whether or not people are willing to accept messages about COVID-19 and health outcomes. In many cases, dislike for the other political party can really influence whether or not you’re willing to hear a message from somebody who’s affiliated with that party.”
How might COVID-19 influence the increasing polarization in our society?
AW: “When people are experiencing economic and social threats like the ones many of us are encountering, it can make them a lot more receptive to messages of division and more accepting of political elites who demonize the other side and frame issues as a battle between good and evil.
“One thing we find quite consistently is that the degree to which people across the political divide are actually different is considerably less extreme than the degree to which they perceive themselves to be different. Through our research, we are trying to understand how to reverse some of this polarization and help people recognize that we actually have a lot more common interest than we might recognize.”