As we live through seemingly endless Covid-19 restrictions, the hubris of the British government in the Spring of 2020 looks increasingly bizarre. Prime Minister Johnson claimed that the British were exceptionally able in the face of adversity. But this was simply a case of hypocrisy argue Lisa Bortolotti and Kathleen Murphy-Hollies.
In February 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson argued that some governments in the world had to stand by freedom of exchange, contrasting the ‘irrational’ panic caused by Coronavirus. In his speech, he compared the UK to Superman: “humanity needs some government somewhere that is willing at least to make the case powerfully for freedom of exchange, some country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other”(1). Prior to the announcement of a lockdown in March 2020, Johnson had also suggested that British people loved freedom too much to tolerate restrictions to their movement and so the lockdown measures adopted by other countries to contain Coronavirus could not be implemented (2).
At the root of these statements is a form of exceptionalism, the conviction that one’s country is better than other countries, and because of that superiority, it is allowed to behave in different ways. Boris Johnson’s statement in February relied on the assumption that things could not be as bad as forecasted by epidemiologists, and that the country he was leading, different from many other countries around the world, had the means to address the impending crisis without imposing restrictions. Arguably exceptionalism (whether justified or not) did cost people’s lives. Indeed, the statistics on the first wave of COVID-19 show that the number of deaths in England and Wales was among the highest in Europe (3).
Arguably exceptionalism (whether justified or not) did cost people’s lives.
So, why did Johnson believe that the crisis other countries had to contend with could be managed successfully by the UK? Why did he think that the sacrifices to the economy that were necessary elsewhere would not be required? When we are thinking about what leaders say, we might be tempted to see their reassurances as a form of propaganda. Although they might realise how serious the threat is, due to the information and expert advice available to them, they must reason that a show of strength would win them the support of their citizens better than an admission of the difficulties to follow.
But an alternative explanation is that no deception is involved. Political leaders who gave in to exceptionalism might have been vulnerable to a form of hypocrisy. We are hypocritical when we endorse some general principle and expect others to conform to it but do not conform to it ourselves, often because we consider our situation as an exception to the rule. A mother might tell her children not to spend too much time gaming online because it can become addictive, and then spend hours on gaming herself—thinking “It is different for me, because I know when to stop.” World leaders must have realised that the threat of COVID-19 infection was real, and yet concluded that what had happened in other countries could not happen at home for some reason, due to some intrinsic feature of their country.
What makes people vulnerable to exceptionalism? We can explain the phenomenon on the basis of the same psychological mechanisms invoked in the literature on unrealistic optimism. Individuals attribute to themselves above-average qualities and skills. They also overestimate their capacity to control external events. This form of self-enhancement leads them to believe that they are more likely to avoid crises and succeed in the future than their peers, in all relevant domains, including academic achievement, relationships, career, and health. “I won’t succumb to cancer because I have an exceptional immune system”. “My marriage won’t end up in divorce because my relationship is better than average”. The individual becomes the notable exception to the statistical evidence. Maybe citizens think of their country as an extension of themselves and have an inflated conception of their “national character”. The perceived qualities associated with a country and its citizens contribute to a prediction of the future that lacks realism: future catastrophes can be avoided altogether or tackled successfully (4).
Optimism at its best enables people to acknowledge a threat but provides the motivation for coping effectively with it. Optimism at its worst leads people to deny the existence of a threat and leaves them ill-prepared to respond to it. One problem with denying threats is that unnecessary risks are taken. If you are sure that you will not get lung cancer, it might seem OK for you to continue smoking. If you are confident that your marriage will not end in divorce, a no-strings-attached affair is going to have no major consequences. If you are not going to be infected with COVID-19, precautions such as wearing masks and social distancing are not necessary. Exceptionalism might just work in the same way: if the UK is never going to experience the dramatic surge of infections experienced in China or Italy, then there is no need to prepare hospitals for an increased number of admissions or order ventilators and protective equipment for NHS workers.
What exceptionalism offers is a justification for the optimistic predictions, and a justification is often needed because such predictions are resistant to change and insensitive to new evidence. Why did it take so long for people in the UK to update unrealistically optimistic views of the effects of Coronavirus? There was growing evidence that it was a very serious threat and that countries such as Spain and Italy were struggling. Because we all tend to confabulate, that is, explain and justify our behaviour by presenting our choices as reasonable and ourselves as rational decision-makers. So many went on with their daily lives despite the risks, continuing to visit friends and family, shop, go to the gym, and attend events without wearing face coverings or socially distancing. When they were asked to explain and justify these behaviours which others saw as reckless, they said things like: “If I get the virus, I get it. Even if I get ill at least it’s over and done with”; or “This is a free country, the government can’t mandate this extent of control”.
We all tend to confabulate our behaviour by presenting our choices as reasonable and ourselves as rational decision-makers.
Such responses reveal interesting parallels between national exceptionalism and individual optimism. Johnson emphasised the values of freedom, liberalism, and the free market as cornerstones of the UK national image. Some British citizens too defended their “business as usual” attitude as an expression of freedom, liberalism, and the right to behave as their conscience dictated. A similar story can be told about President Trump’s underestimation of the risks of COVID-19 infection in the US and the resistance of some American citizens to medical advice. The UK and the US were just as susceptible to the virus and its effects as any other country, but exceptionalism impacted realistic appraisals of the situation. When behaviour flouted rules and restrictions, confabulatory explanations emphasised the person’s ‘freedom’ and ‘resistance to being controlled’, downplaying other motives, such as selfishness.
Confabulation can have damaging effects: when we describe how a country is an exception to the rule (“The UK government is better prepared to face a pandemic”) and how apparently objectionable behaviour can be seen as reasonable (“Refusing to wear a mask is an expression of freedom”), we hide the inconsistencies that would reveal our hypocrisy. The superiority effect underlying national exceptionalism and unrealistic optimism is often unfounded and leads to excessive risk-taking. How can we overcome it? At the level of whole countries as at the individual level, the best remedy seems to remain open to the possibility of being wrong and having something to learn from others, both about how to tackle a crisis, and about what our behaviour may really say about us.
 (1) PM Greenwich, February 3rd, 2020 (URL: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-speech-in-greenwich-3-february-2020).
 (2) The Guardian, April 11th, 2020
 (3) Kontis V., Bennett, J.E., Rashid, T. et al. Magnitude, demographics and dynamics of the effect of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on all-cause mortality in 21 industrialized countries. Nat Med (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-1112-0.
 (4) Bottemanne H, Morlaàs O, Fossati P, Schmidt L (2020), Does the Coronavirus Epidemic Take Advantage of Human Optimism Bias? Frontiers in Psychology 11, 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.02001
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