Understanding human psychology during the polycrisis

We live in a world where we are being buffeted by multiple crises.

The author(s)
  • Colin Strong Global Lead of Behavioural Science, Global Science Organisation, UK
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Ipsos | Inflation | Feeling the PressureWe are facing a cost of living crisis which has no precedent in living memory; climate change has gone from something conceptual to a a series of horrifying experiences for people; Covid-19 has shown to us just how vulnerable we are to invisible threats; AI and technology disruption are not only set to claim our livelihoods but are causing us to question the nature of what being human really involves. A term that is gaining ground as a means to describe this is the polycrisis: interacting crises that result in harms greater than the sum that the crises would produce in isolation.

While the economic and political implications of this have been much discussed, there is less focus on the way in which this impacts people and how we think, feel and behave. The challenge is that we have little, if any precedents that we can draw on. All this points to the way we are having to get using to living in a very new way, one that has been described as ‘Liquid Times’, where thinking, planning, and acting are no longer helping us in the way they did in the past.

Our environment is in a constant state of change, we are operating without fixed, solid patterns. We can no longer rely on the beliefs that were a feature of our relatively stable and more certain past (compared to where we find ourselves today, at least for recent generations). Instead, we need to learn to live a life of ‘walking on quicksand’, adapting constantly to rapid change.

How this follows through into our psychology is something that we have been seeking to understand at Ipsos, identifying a number of key themes, and drawing on the work of social scientists to inform our thinking:

Existential Fear

In ancient Rome, the phrase Memento Mori was whispered by slaves who accompanied army generals on victory parades so they could be reminded of their own mortality, and prevent them from being taken over by hubris.

The environment we are in has meant that we no longer need to be reminded of our mortality: Terror Management Theory is the principle that awareness of the inevitability of death gives rise to an existential terror.

We seek to avoid or at least reduce this terror through a ‘buffering system’ of beliefs that provide us with answers to the big questions about life beyond the everyday.

This means that people are increasingly looking for an understanding and explanations that are not readily supplied by science alone.

Our nature of being, our place in the world, our connection with our ancestors but also with those that come after us shapes the way we live in this world, these are things that occupy us. The meaning of life is a question much more likely to be on our minds which is then shaping what we do – is this job really how I want my life to be about? We see this manifesting itself through themes such as ‘The Great Resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting’.


Ipsos | Inflation | Feeling the PressureThis sense of fear is central to ways in which we can see people are seeking safety through protection. This might be improved welfare, worker representation for secure employment and social support mechanisms to assist those that are victims of the polycrisis environment.

Whereas the overarching focus for many people in the last three decades has been how to grow and optimise, it is now about safety and protection. For people to live well they want security in the face of dangers to the natural environment, viral risks, food supply, energy availability and healthcare access.

Throughout history, protection of the communities we live in has come from a sense of fear that comes with risks to our safe habitat. We saw the way this sprang up with the pandemic where there was a resurfacing of a sense of public duty and solidarity, meaning the vast majority of the population was willing to comply with restrictive public health safeguards to protect ourselves and others in the face of existential risks. At its peak 78% of people in Great Britain said they were completely or nearly following the government coronavirus rules all the time.


While the polycrises that are buffeting us are often global, the political bodies and mechanisms that will actually protect us are frequently local. This has potential to create a new-found respect for local and national identities and to the local mechanisms that offer us this protection. We have seen a resurgence of interest in the way local communities, with strong attachments to place and tradition, are self-organising to not only provide support but also a political voice to those that have arguably not had their voices heard. This suggests that the way we think of place and how the psychology of our social identities are woven into this is something that both ends of the political spectrum will be increasingly engaged in.


Ipsos | inflationThe impact of the global polycrises on our lives means that those suffering most will struggle with self-regulation and self-belief in their potential to control events. Historically it is often marginalised groups where this takes place, leading to them being demonised by attributing these challenges to personal failure and psychological impairment. As a much greater proposition of the population is affected it will become clearer that these are in fact adaptive responses to having little actual control over one’s future and the need to take opportunities for pleasure now as they may not be there in the future.

As the cost-of-living crisis hits many more people in the population there is naturally an attempt to regain some form of control and push back on these challenges.

People are looking for leadership to help them recover some power over their lives and overcome the feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness. How people understand what control means varies of course: as we saw with the Brexit vote in the UK, for some it is a conversation about immigration, independence from global bodies and individual freedoms.

But we can also see the way there is a burgeoning level of public sentiment relating control to the state’s ability to mitigate wider economic impacts (such as windfall taxes on energy companies), provision of economic safety nets for those impacted, along with a desire for greater economic protectionism and demands to allow for greater participation in democratic decision-making.

Fluid cognition

One of the wider implications of the polycrisis environment is that the principles we have used to categorise and understand the world are appearing much less effective in explaining this Liquid environment. Historian Mary Poovey suggests this challenges our notion of ‘facts’ with an unlinking of our specific observations from “deeper” principles that explain them. In a complex polycrisis environment we are arguably seeing the world as something where we can only speculate about the underlying causes rather than assert explanations from wider principles.

This subtle shift in our collective cognition can help to explain the rise of fake news, misinformation and conspiracy theories as people become more willing to offer alternative explanations that might sit outside conventional knowledge. This clearly comes with challenges, but we can also see the way that greater pluralism also brings with it some possibilities for new thinking of how to navigate these turbulent times.

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Navigating our complex world

These significant shifts might suggest that we are in the midst of potentially revolutionary times. Not necessarily in the way we might necessarily expect from the way this term is often deployed, people in the streets overthrowing the authorities but in the way we think, feel and behave and indeed see ourselves as humans. We are moving to a place where what we believe about ourselves is a version that is more pluralistic and collective than we might have expected. But also we can see ourselves more clearly as beings that are embedded in a complex world no longer holding quite the position of primacy we thought we were entitled to.

Table of content

  1. Introduction
  2. Feeling the pressure: Context
  3. Understanding human psychology during the polycrisis
  4. Has disruption become the new normal?
  5. The Indian consumer's response to inflation
  6. Turkey: Re-designing adaptation in the shadow of hyperinflation
  7. Brazil: Downsizing VS price rises- making the right choice
  8. Malaysia: Between money well spent and life well lived
  9. Understanding Argentina
  10.  France: The end of recklessness

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- Zygmunt Bauman (2007) Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty

- Pyszczynski, T., Lockett, M., Greenberg, J., & Solomon, S. (2021). Terror Management Theory and the COVID-19 Pandemic. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 61(2), 173–189. https://doi. org/10.1177/0022167820959488

- Gerbaudo, P. (2021). The great recoil: Politics after populism and pandemic. Verso Books.

- Poovey, M. (1998). A history of the modern fact: Problems of knowledge in the sciences of wealth and society. University of Chicago Press.

- Sheehy-Skeffington, J., & Rea, J. (2017). How poverty affects people’s decision-making processes (pp. 1-73). York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

The author(s)
  • Colin Strong Global Lead of Behavioural Science, Global Science Organisation, UK