While she couldn’t have predicted the COVID-19 crisis that virtually shuttered the world in March 2020, Patricia Greenfield did predict many of the dramatic changes in our values, attitudes and activities in response to the pandemic — including that sudden frenzy for backyard gardens and homemade sourdough.

The distinguished professor of psychology, who studies the ways in which we react and adapt to threats to our collective survival, has theorized that in times when fear of mortality increases and the social world shrinks, larger societies activities and cultural values increasingly begin to resemble those of small, isolated rural villages.

On Feb. 15, at UCLA’s 133rd Faculty Research Lecture, Greenfield will discuss how her theory was borne out by her research in the United States and across the globe in the wake of COVID-19. She hopes her lecture will help audience members make sense of their own social, behavioral and psychological experiences of the pandemic. The virtual talk will be broadcast online through Zoom at 2 p.m.

In advance of her lecture, Greenfield spoke to Newsroom about the changes she and her family experienced in the pandemic’s early days and how her theory and previous fieldwork in Mexico served as a starting point for her first two studies — one examining online behavior and a second directly surveying Americans — that shined a new light on our post–March 2020 world.

What inspired your research into pandemic culture? 

I was inspired by observing my own behavior changes and those of my extended family in the early days of the pandemic. These changes excited me because they fit into — and extended — a theory of social change, cultural evolution and human development I had been working on for a number of years. They also related to my experience of social change in the Maya village of Nabenchauk in Chiapas, Mexico, that had been my research site since 1969.

What changes did you find yourself and your family making in those early months of COVID-19?

I found myself starting a vegetable garden for the first time in my life and volunteering in a school community garden. A love of cooking returned to me after about five decades of basically cooking to survive. And I went back to knitting, which I had not done in a number of years. I found myself worrying about the fact that I had not updated my will. I also observed my grandchildren increasing their helpfulness around the house.

Did any of your research findings about Americans’ response to the pandemic threat surprise you? 

I predicted all the findings from three sources: first, my theory of social change, cultural evolution and human development; second, my research and observations in Chiapas; and third, earlier research by my colleagues and myself on the cultural effects of the Great Recession.

But what was really amazing was how rapidly changes occurred. Data for the first study were collected 30 days after former President Trump’s emergency COVID-19 declaration in March 2020. The next study assessed cultural and behavior change online during the first 70 days of the 2020 lockdown. Both studies uncovered huge changes in behavior, values and concerns — exactly the same changes I had earlier observed in myself and my family.

The speed of these shifts indicates that human beings have automatic responses to high environmental danger experienced in small, relatively isolated social groups. All of this suggests that these responses to the pandemic go back to a much earlier time in the history of our species.

What about other societies throughout the world?

Subsequent to those two studies, two UCLA undergraduate students and a postbaccalaureate student — a team that was located in various countries during the pandemic — collected data in Indonesia, Mexico and Japan. Their data replicated and extended our earlier findings. Most recently, Nevfel Boz, a postdoctoral researcher from Turkey, replicated our survey findings in that country, even though the timing of the Turkish data collection was much later in the pandemic. 

You collaborated with your grandsons Noah and Gabriel on the study looking at internet data. What was it like working with family?

It has been the thrill of my life! I never dreamt that my scientific legacy would be carried forward by a later generation of my own family. And family collaboration is extremely relevant to the theme of my lecture, which explores how, during the COVID lockdown, people quickly reacted to the increased threat of mortality and the narrowing of the social world by moving towards a way of life prevalent at an earlier point in human history. Generations working together is an important feature of that way of life.

Why is this lecture topic so important, given that we’re nearly three years out from COVID-19 being declared a national emergency?

COVID has not gone away. More important scientifically, our empirical studies and the theory that generated them have given us a tool for understanding the cultural and behavioral effects of new ecological shifts that will, in the future, create threats to our survival and/or some degree of social isolation.

What do you hope the audience takes away from your lecture?

We have all been through the pandemic. From the human perspective, I hope my lecture helps people understand and integrate their own COVID experiences. From the scientific perspective, I hope people will see how powerful my theory of social change, cultural evolution and human behavior is in making predictions about real-world behavior.

What was your reaction to being chosen for the Faculty Research Lecture?

This is a huge honor and gratifying recognition of the value of my research career. My other reaction was gratitude to biological anthropologist Professor Daniel Fessler for nominating me for this honor on behalf of the UCLA Bedari Kindness Institute.