Our work.

Long before the advent of Covid, ICM and Walnut have tracked the UK’s mental wellbeing, observing that ‘positivity towards life’ and other measures fluctuate month by month.  Unsurprisingly, we have seen significantly greater volatility in the last year due to the pandemic, with several sharp declines associated with the grim realities of lockdown.

Q1. On a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 is ‘Extremely negative’ and 7 is ‘Extremely positive’, how would you say you currently feel about your life in general? Base – n = c2000 per month

At the end of February this year, Boris Johnson announced a roadmap for the UK’s return to a new normal. As a result, children were heading back to school, summer holidays were being planned and a sense of optimism was in the air. It is therefore no surprise that we have seen a decline in feelings of ‘uncertainty,’ ‘worry,’ ‘fear’ and ‘sadness.’

Q2. Which, if any of the following, best describe how you currently feel? Base: n=c2000 per wave Yellow triangle indicates significant difference vs Feb

But how long will this trend last? While not wishing to overstate the power of the roadmap, the government’s latest announcement certainly appears to be the cause of much of the nation’s recent positivity. To uncover exactly how the roadmap is impacting our mental health, Behavioural Science offers a useful framework for a nuanced understanding.

According to Behavioural Science, human decision-making is influenced by an array of cognitive biases (or ‘heuristics’). We do not process decisions in a purely rational fashion like a computer but are instead unconsciously swayed by hundreds of ‘irrational’ influences. One such cognitive bias, known as the autonomy bias, states that humans can be motivated by a desire for control. Placing this into the context of the roadmap, it quickly becomes apparent that the power of this announcement lies in its ability to provide both certainty and a greater sense of control. Through a renewed sense of autonomy and certainty individuals are able to act and think independently, planning not only holidays but their lives in general.

In the short-term, the roadmap has caused a significant increase in the nation’s mood. However, there is a danger that the provision of specific milestones has inadvertently sown the seeds for a slump in mental wellbeing if these dates are moved backwards.

The anchoring bias emphasises that humans latch onto the first piece of information they hear, often at the expense of subsequent evidence. It is therefore likely that few people are mentally prepared for subsequent shifts in the roadmap milestones despite reminders from the government that ‘data not dates’ will lead the way. Changes to the roadmap will also deny the public the feeling that the journey has been completed. Together these two dangers associated with changing the roadmap milestones may even outweigh the positivity generated by its announcement.

Mental wellbeing has recovered significantly since January. With vaccines being rolled out and a long-term roadmap in place, positivity towards life is back to pre-Covid levels. However, the roadmap milestones present an inherent risk – by allowing people to anchor their lives around them, there is likely to be a significant fallout if they are moved backwards.

If you would like to speak to a member of ICM to conduct further research into this area, please contact Fabian on 020 7845 8361. For further information on our Understanding the Nation tracking research, please follow this link.

How can we help?