Losing control: Is it really so bad?

2 September 2020 by Matt Bishop

Since Covid-19 hit, we’ve been using our community and WhatsApp tools to explore life in the pandemic world. We’ve been following a sample of consumers and SMEs from the UK and USA.

Our aim is to explore different aspects of how people are thinking and behaving – both for now and to help us get a small understanding of what the future might bring.

We’re also trying to explore different angles and issues – and thought we’d share some of our insights…

A digital window into a changing world

Over the last few years, I’ve lost count of the number of debriefs we’ve given where at least one of the key findings was that the root of the issue was a feeling of ‘loss of control’ among whichever audience we were researching.

Whether it was the role of cash in society, the adoption of banking apps or choosing what to watch on TV, it often seems to boil down to degrees of control and how we can help our clients make their customer base feel more in control of their lives/businesses when they use their product or service.

This desire for control is well documented by psychologists and has been consistently linked with physical health, and greater longevity. It’s always been there, but has been surfacing more and more in recent years; as life speeds up and gets more complex feelings of being out of control happen all too easily.

Until 2020 that is. The advent of the global pandemic has caused all of us to experience many profound changes over the last six months or so. Here at Whycatcher, we have been tracking the experiences and emotions of a group of consumers and small business owners in both the UK and US, and we’ve been struck by just how many of them have almost relished the opportunity to put their lives ‘on pause’.

In many ways, when we were in full lockdown, we had very little control over our lives. The phrase we kept seeing in the media was ‘the virus is in control’ and if it wasn’t the virus, then it was the government imposing strict lockdown conditions. But it seems the very nature of these conditions simplified life for a lot of us. We had very few choices to make, the complexity of normal living had been stripped away and our participants tell us repeatedly how they have enjoyed the opportunity to pause normality and just live in the moment. Loss of control in this instance seems to lead to greater happiness for many people, however temporary.

Interestingly, our SME respondents tend to be less comfortable with the situation, especially when they have their ‘business heads’ on. Our SME owners are more prone to project into the future and, though optimistic by nature (as so many entrepreneurs are), they can also foresee challenges ahead. That said, some owners also felt they had more control than consumers because they had some agency over managing this period of change for their businesses, for example, whether they needed to furlough people, or to shift to a new channel to sell their products.

What will be interesting over the next few months will be participants’ responses to changes in government restrictions, and the extent to which real life comes trickling back in. Will any returns of complexity lead to greater anxiety as we navigate new circumstances, or will the period of reflection some have enjoyed over the past six or so months lead to new behaviours and a greater appreciation for the simple things in life? And how do brands navigate all this?

Time will tell, but using our community and WhatsApp tools to conduct research on Covid-19 over the coming months should be fascinating– and hopefully give us some pointers for how the future will look.

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