The World’s Biggest Psychological Experiment


There’s an awful lot of ‘GREAT’ things around right now.

The Great Resignation. The Great Rethink. The Great Realignment.

The Great Drama and even The Great Fear.

(Do I hear, the GREAT Self-Perpetuating Marketing Statement? :-)).

But for a long time – since the first lockdown in 2020 – we’re been thinking about it very differently.

It is – without a shadow of a doubt –THE GREATEST psych experiment ever! Shared right across the world, to every possible corner – to every family, home, village, town, city, country, and community.

What is a psych experiment?

For anyone who has missed out on the joys of studying psychology, at the most fundamental level, there are three types of psychological experiments.

  • The Lab Experiment, where everything is controlled, and there are standardised procedures.
  • The Field Experiment, where we look at everyday life of the participants, but where the experimenter manipulates just one variable.
  • The Natural Experiment, where everything happens in real life, and there is no control over the independent variable, because everything ‘just happens’.

Leaving aside conspiracy theories, let’s assume that this is the largest ever Natural Experiment.


What happened?

You know what happened, but here’s a quick summary:

  • Very late 2019 COVID started before exploding across the world stage in early 2020.
  • This meant that the 7.75billion people who live on earth were subjected to a deadly new pathogen that was unique in the severity of symptoms, contagion ability (an RO of 1.4-2.4), and death rate (~1-2% depending on the availability of medical intervention).
  • Within a year, a vaccine was developed, but before those vaccines, the only effective solution was to close national borders and wherever possible to confine us to our homes.
  • Now vaccines are available, 7.8billion doses have been administered, which when compared to the world’s population is concerning, as we know that richer, more medically-equipped countries are having two or even three doses, which means more than half the world is still vaccine-free.
  • We recorded 258,000,000 cases globally (200,000 confirmed in Australia), and 5.7million people deaths globally (1900 in Australia), noting that WHO estimates remain considerably higher on both counts.

So that’s one very big experiment! I wrote a blog about it in mid-2020 and said just that. We will be the generation that survives the pandemic, and indeed, while we lost just a little under 0.1% of the world’s population, 99.9% of us have survived.

That’s not for a moment to understate that 5.7million+ lives were lost. It’s just to say that given the deadliness of this thing, it is an awful lot better than initially predicted. Science, lawmakers, and all of us complying to rules, have done not too bad a job.


So, Congrats on Surviving! (To this point anyway).

Our only experiences with plagues and pandemics demonstrate that this may be early days.

  • Black Plague (1346-1353),
  • Cholera Pandemic (1899-1923)
  • Spanish Flu (1918-1920), and
  • AIDS (1981 and still active today).

But let’s be optimistic, and assume, that we can keep chipping away and get through the last of this tunnel.

Now, what did we learn and where to from here?


BIG lessons

No one is exceptional.

Despite the political claims, faced with a pathogen, we’re all equally fragile. The only thing that saved us was an ability to stay home, and access to medical treatment. If you didn’t need to leave home for work, you were in better shape than those that did.

Homeschooling is a pain in the arse, but living alone is worse.

Regardless of the fees, you paid for your kids’ schooling, school stopped. So, began an endless stream of media on the crazy impact of homeschooling while working, or trying to work. From talking to friends who did the home-schooling gig, the media was right. It was a right royal pain in the arse, especially in families where the load isn’t evenly shared by the genders.

But next to those daily home-schooling memes, media, and entertaining zoom interruptions, there was potentially a worse issue. Those living alone or without close connections suffered a fourfold increase in mental health issues (pre-covid 11 to in-covid 41%) and more than twofold increase in suicidal thoughts (pre-covid 11% to in-covid 26%).

We like sharing the planet.

Most of us care about others. We like to hang with other people, connect and share life. Being locked down, made us more lonely.

Australian HILDA data on loneliness has been collected for a while, so it gives us good comparisons.

Between 2001 and 2009, 1 in 3 Australians experienced loneliness.

Since COVID, that figure has moved to 1 in 2 (50% reporting that they were more lonely), and it has an unexpected age bias in the August 2021 spike:

  • 18-24 years – 35%
  • 25-34 years – 52%
  • 35-44 years – 62%
  • 45-54 years – 72%

Again, it points to the idea that ‘homeschooling is bad’, but maybe having no one at home to home-school is even worse.

We like to be free.

In the first few months of lockdown, we called it ‘work from home’ and the big tech companies predicted the joys of never commuting or attending an office ever again, but the joys of working on the dining room, and seeing the same two or three people, or even just your own face, every day, grew old fast.

Leaving the loneliness data from above at the front of our minds, we can also add a tendency to riot when you lock us humans down for too long.

Almost every country that has had lockdowns, has eventually had riots. (7 in Africa, 12 in Asia, 19 in Europe, 5 in North America, 3 in Oceania, and 6 in South America). Many of them multiple times.

What did we learn and where to from here?

What did we learn from this Great Psychology Experiment?

A whole bunch of stuff we already knew, but perhaps hadn’t given much thought to.


There is more to learn, and more data to come. After all, learning isn’t always an epiphany – more often, it’s a slow reveal.  As we say to people all the time, ‘don’t look for the loudest data points, but for those that lead to the best insights’.
Right now, though, the biggest lessons appear to be these:

  • We need community. It’s who we are. The Metaverse may be coming, but skin hunger, sharing music in the same room, and sitting across from a colleague over real coffee is real too.
  • Commuting may well be a pain, but we’ll fight for our right to leave home freely.
  • We’re more resilient than we thought. (And don’t we always learn that from enduring). Go us!
  • Individually editing a google doc is not bad at all, but scribbling on butcher’s paper while we talk face-to-face, has its own charm for those problems we can’t solve alone.
  • If you have twenty meetings a day on zoom, losing a few is a relief. If you only have one, losing it is everything.

With all those lessons in front of us, maybe now is the time The Great Contemplation – Taking time to really understand the lessons we have all just shared.

In Short

In short, the shared learning from the Great COVID Psychological Experiment, will not be the technology of breakout rooms, or how to smooth our wrinkles (and humanity) out of our faces on zoom. It’s much more likely to be a lesson on how much we love to overhear a stupid conversation and a laugh from the desk next to us – the miro-interactions we used to take for granted – or how much we appreciate landing in a foreign country to talk face-to-face with colleagues who until now we had no idea were 6’4”.


Funnily enough, the biggest lesson from a pandemic-based experiment in being virtual, may well be that we rather like humanity.