Birth rates will drop, people will stay single for longer and women will sexualise themselves more: Scientists predict how society will change in a post-COVID world
- A multidisciplinary team of experts reviewed 90 studies to make their forecasts
- The team predict various social impacts — even among those not infected
- Gender inequality could rise due to lockdown, as could social conservatism
- The ongoing pandemic is a ‘worldwide social experiment’, the researchers said
Psychological fallout from the pandemic will cause birth rates to drop, people to stay single for longer and women to sexualise themselves more, experts have predicted.
Experts from the US reviewed 90 studies to help them predict how COVID-19 could shift social behaviours and gender norms — even among those not infected.
They expect planned pregnancies to decrease in response to the global health crisis as people defer marriage and kids, leading some nations’ populations to shrink.
Drops in birth-rates will have cascading impacts on society and economics, affecting such things as job opportunities and support for elderly populations.
Furthermore, the unequal division of the extra household labour brought by lockdown could see gender inequality rise and foster more social conservatism.
In many ways, the researchers noted, ‘the pandemic has become a worldwide social experiment’ — the results of which have yet to finish playing out.
Psychological fallout from the pandemic will cause birth rates to drop, people to stay single for longer and women to sexualise themselves more in the post-COVID world, experts predicted
The researchers applied their varied expertise to predicting the future — which included backgrounds in behavioural science, economics, evolutionary biology, medicine and neuroscience.
‘The psychological, social and societal consequences of COVID-19 will be very long-lasting,’ said paper author and psychologist Martie Haselton of the University of California Los Angeles.
Furthermore, she added, ‘the longer COVID-19 continues, the more entrenched these changes are likely to be.’
Prospective couples who met video-dating amid lockdown could find themselves disappointed when they finally meet up in the outside world, the team warned.
‘Does a couple have chemistry? You can’t tell over Zoom,’ Professor Haselton said.
The missing of cues in new, digitally-forged relationships will likely lead to the over-idealization of potential partners — a misapprehension which may mean the coupling might not survive meeting reality.
This — and missed opportunities for social meetings — could result in people remaining single for longer.
Unlike past crises, the team noted, the pandemic is not bringing people together and — for the most part — is not fostering an increase in compassion or empathy.
Prospective couples who met video-dating amid lockdown could find themselves disappointed when they finally meet up in the outside world, the team warned. ‘Does a couple have chemistry? You can’t tell over Zoom,’ Professor Haselton said
The team noted that the pandemic has heaped more onto the plates of women — who were, even before the pandemic, typically more stressed by the marriage of career and family obligations.
Lockdown and school closures, for example, have burdened women with more extensive responsibilities in the realms of childcare and education.
According to Professor Haselton, the impacts of this are already being felt. For example, she said, in the realm of academia women scholars already appear to publishing less amid the pandemic — the reverse of their male counterparts.
The roots of this inequality are not only bound up in traditional gender roles, the researchers argued.
‘Throughout evolutionary history, a woman’s reproductive fitness hinged on the success of each individual offspring to a greater extent than a man’s,’ they wrote.
Women evolved stronger motivations to attend to the details of childcare and may feel pressured to accept more childcare and homemaking responsibility when others, such as teachers and childcare workers […] cannot.’
Inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic could lead to a ‘large-scale backslide toward “traditional” gender norms’ — where women end up dependant on their men as ‘breadwinners’, pictured — and related shifts further into social conservatism
In turn, the team suggest, this trend could lead to a ‘large-scale backslide toward “traditional” gender norms’ — where women end up dependant on their men as ‘breadwinners’ — and related shifts further into social conservatism.
‘A consequence of the pandemic, therefore, could be a reduction in tolerance across a range of issues,’ the researchers wrote.
These could include, they added, less acceptance for ‘non-monogamous mating arrangements, legal abortion, and rights for sexual minorities —who violate traditional gender roles and are also stereotyped as promiscuous.’
Furthermore, Professor Haselton said, economic inequality could see many women sexualise themselves more in order to compete with each other for desirable men.
The team also used an evolutionary perspective to to examine the way in which the virus has evolved to attack us — alongside the strategies that we can, and should, employ to fight back against it.
According to the researchers, much of our inadequate response to the global health crisis is a result of humanity having evolved — both genetically and socially — in an environment that has little in common with today’s word.
This, they added, leads to ‘evolutionary mismatches’ with the present circumstances — such as, for example, how Americans typically value individuality and the ability to challenge authority.
‘This combination does not work especially well in a pandemic,’ said paper author and psychologist Benjamin Seitz, also of the University of California Los Angeles.
‘This virus is exposing us and our weaknesses,’ he added.
Alongside this, the team wrote, ‘our species is not wired for seeking a precise understanding of the world as it actually is’ — with tribalism and groupthink leading to widespread misinformation and distrust of experts at a time such is needed.
According to the researchers, much of our inadequate response to the global health crisis is a result of humanity having evolved — both genetically and socially — in an environment that has little in common with today’s word. This, they added, leads to ‘evolutionary mismatches’ with the present circumstances — such as, for example, how Americans typically value individuality and the ability to challenge authority. ‘This combination does not work especially well in a pandemic,’ said University of California Los Angeles psychologist Benjamin Seitz
According to Professor Haselton, the virus is ‘wily’ for having the ability to infect us through our contact with others — especially loved ones — who seem healthy.
‘Our social features that define much of what it is to be human make us a prime target for viral exploitation,’ she commented.
‘Policies asking us to isolate and distance profoundly affect our families, work lives, relationships and gender roles.’
Like all viruses, SARS-CoV-2 experiences an evolutionary pressure to manipulate the behaviour and physiology of its hosts in such a way to ensure its transmission and continued existence.
Coronavirus may be altering our neural tissue to influence our behaviour, the researchers propose — such as by supressing unwell feelings and enhancing social impulses in the infectious peak before symptoms appear.
In this way, recently infected individuals would be more likely to come into contact with others and spread the virus before they were aware they had contracted it.
Similarly, suppressing outward appearances of illness would enable SARS-CoV-2 to bypass the useful ‘disgust’ response that we have evolved to avoid catching disease.
Stay-at-home and quarantine measures have halted the social interactions which would otherwise expose millions of adolescents to new microbes. It remains to be seen what impact on young people’s development this shift will have, the researchers said
Counterintuitively, however, normal brain development among juvenile animals — including human children — requires exposure to a diverse set of microorganisms.
This allows the young to prepare themselves against the various pathogens that they might later encounter during adulthood.
Stay-at-home and quarantine measures, however, have halted the social interactions which would otherwise expose millions of adolescents to new microbes.
It remains to be seen what impact on young people’s developing immune systems and brains this shift will have, the researchers said.
Better understanding the behavioural, developmental and psychological impacts of SARS-CoV-2 will enable us to better combat the pandemic, the team concluded.
The full findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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