ReUnited Kingdoms #6: Fighting the fear of going out

Emphasis shifting to worrying about the future

The Covid-19 outbreak created new behaviours for consumers, brands, employers and governments alike. We highlighted these changing behaviours in our “Pivoting in Crisis” content series. More recently though, the emphasis has shifted. As lockdown restrictions start to ease and as businesses take their first tentative steps towards reopening, we collectively start to think about the future. Our “ReUnited Kingdoms” content series has been exploring various aspects of life beyond lockdown, looking particularly at how we can all play our part in creating the future. In this piece we look at the emotional and psychological hurdles that we’ll all need to overcome in getting back to “normal”.


A decade or so ago, as social media validation became a part of our lives, for some to the extent of determining their leisure choices, people began to recognise the pressure on them to live perfect lifestyles. The idea that, however we’d decided to amuse ourselves on a given evening, there was more than likely a better option out there and that staying in and doing nothing was potentially damaging to one’s personal online brand, became powerful motivators – the so called fear of missing out (FOMO).

As the pressures built a countertrend began to grow, driven by the rise of wellbeing and the recognition of the importance of mental health. Characterised by hygge, Headspace and other mindfulness offerings, this movement gained its own FOMO-derived branding – the joy of missing out (JOMO).

One of the benefits of lockdown has arguably been the removal of the pressures to navigate the FOMO-JOMO waters. We were given no option but to miss out, although both consumers and businesses alike have experimented with digital substitutes for real-life interactions and activities.

By and large, the British public have buckled down to the restrictions of lockdown. And, now that the end seems to be in sight, many are naturally wary about moving on. For a combination of reasons, some are expressing misgivings about both when and how to get back “out there”, a wariness that some are describing as the fear of going out (FOGO).

In truth, the evidence around FOGO is mixed (as we’ll see in a moment), in particular about whether that reticence will translate into fewer trips out, or merely alter the nature and duration of those trips and involve us in more preparations and caution when we do go out. It is also complicated by a new found joy of staying in for certain situations: we may want to go out less, both because we’re scared of the risks in doing so, but also because we’ve become more used to staying in and better recognise the benefits of doing so. For example:

WFH is likely here to stay: another reason going out is declining

While working remotely has been somewhat enforced by lockdown, there is lots of evidence suggesting that employees (and employers) have seen the benefits it can bring to work-life balance while maintaining profitability, and it seems unthinkable that we won’t be sticking with it in some form or another (link). More WFH means fewer reasons to be out and about during the working week and also that our weekend trips out become more special.

Rejecting the call to send kids back to school

While schools have reopened for some year groups, many parents are still opting to keep their children at home out of fear infection (link). With the more recent announcement that not all children will return before the summer, we can probably expect such absences to increase.

Foregoing treatments for fear of infection

Fear of  infection is keeping people out of hospitals for a variety of conditions – heart disease, macular degeneration, stroke and appendicitis are all cited (link). If consumers are wary of leaving home for even such serious reasons, one can also reasonably expect more trivial motivations like shopping or going to the pub to keep many at home.

Wariness about social settings

A survey by Statista conducted in the US, UK and Germany at the end of May, reported by the World Economic Forum (link), confirmed that this fear about re-emerging back into the outside world and re-engaging with people en masse will be anything but “business as usual”. On the contrary, large numbers of individuals (UK consumers aged 18 and over) admitted that they are likely to try and avoid many of their old haunts:

  • Pubs/bars/clubs 62%
  • Music festivals 58%
  • Cinema/theatre 58%
  • Music concerts 58%
  • Sports events 57%
  • Restaurants and cafes 53%
  • Gym/sports centres 52%
  • Holidays 51%
  • Large retail shops/malls 47%
  • Museums/galleries 45%
  • High Street shopping 36%
  • Hairdressers/beauty salons 36%
  • Supermarket/grocery shops 20%

Creating (and keeping) new habits

Images of large crowds of people oblivious to the rules of social distancing or lockdown – from those flocking to seaside beauty spots like Dorset’s Durdle Door during the recent hot weather (link) to the vast crowds marching to support #BlackLivesMatter protest (link)– have become something of a media norm over the past couple of months. While images like these are very suggestive of a devil-may-care public who care more about normality than risk, there is also evidence that large numbers of people do feel misgivings about the easing of lockdown. Why wouldn’t they? They’ve been told every day for three months that they must “Stay at Home”, “Stay Alert” and “Save Lives”, so little wonder that it has become something of a new way of life (link).

There are a number of explanations for these tendencies based around behavioural science and neuroscience, and here I am grateful for the expert input of colleagues from Walnut Unlimited.

Basic human needs

First and foremost (along with our physiological needs such as air, food, water, sleep, clothing and reproduction), the need to feel safe (in terms of personal security, employment health, property and resources) is always regarded as a fundamental human need. Our experiences through lockdown and our beliefs about what life will be like in the immediate aftermath are, if anything, likely to strengthen peoples’ focus on these basic needs.

Habits create control and certainty

Moreover, it is well accepted that routines, habits and norms provide individuals with reassurance, certainty, security and a perception that they are in control and helps to reduce anxiety, give meaning to our world and make future more “predictable”. They help to calm people in times of stress and the result is that they can be reluctant to move on, into a new unknown.

Survey studies, including reaction time testing, undertaken by Walnut Unlimited have shown (e.g. here and here) that people feel uncertain about their own attitudes, what to do and what is right. The sheer volume and range of “information” and advice that is out there via various channels (government, celebrities, YouTube, Facebook and others) doesn’t help either. To overcome this sense of uncertainty (and eventually fear), citizens have engaged in many rituals as they provide a sense of control, helping to reduce anxiety, give meaning to our world and make the future more “predictable”. It calms us down.

Citizens are now being asked to abandon or modify these routines. In effect, this means that all the “systems” we have been applying lately in order to regain control over our lives, to stay safe and to help others are losing their meanings. This is difficult – both emotionally and practically – and it leads to a spiral of growing uncertainty and the reappearance of fear. FOGO helps to protect these beliefs, keeping status quo until we find emotional substitutes for our rituals or until we start to truly believe it is safe out there and the rituals are not needed anymore. This process might take some time. Of course we need to remember that life is more complex and it won’t be true for all the people, for example where the need to go out is stronger (e.g. when losing economic safety poses a bigger threat than coronavirus).

Simplicity reinforces habits

Staying at home is a simple ritual that was easy to follow was clearly communicated to the public by the government from the very beginning, enabling emotional connections very quickly which lead to behavioural changes.

Change creates uncertainty that leads to stress

Forming the new routines of lockdown took everyone considerable time and effort. We had just begun to feel secure. Now we are being asked to change again and people are naturally uncertain about how they will cope and fearful of the individual and societal consequences. What will going out mean now? How will we all cope with new social norms and rules? For many, it may seem easier to just stick to the life we have come to know, in the short-term at least.

Lockdown may have given us excuses to live a certain way

Lastly, it is worth pointing out that individuals may have adopted some of these new habits, routines, rituals because they actively disliked some of their former habits (such as commuting, duty visits to family, etc). The lockdown has given individuals a form of social validation or justification for living their lives in a new way without some of the less appealing trappings of their former lives. Where this is the case, naturally we can expect those new habits to persist.

How brands are fighting the fear: some current best practice

Brands, city authorities and retailers are adopting a variety of strategies to bring people back into physical retail, whether in town/city centres or more locally, as well as looking to maintain and broaden virtual offerings for those consumers who still wish to remain distanced. Here are just a few:

Provide reassurances that customers and staff will have a safe experience

Retailers have a major dilemma. Many rely on high footfall and conversion rates, which will be difficult to achieve with social distancing measures being an expected requirement in reopening stores. But it is clear that they will need to prioritise safety above profits: not only for customers but for staff and this will compromise their operational profitability (link). There are a number of examples of how retailers are attempting to provide such reassurance:

  • Aldi is launching a new “automated traffic light system” across its entire UK store estate to limit the number of shoppers allowed in store at any one time (link).
  • Surreal Design Studio has introduced innovative products such as Sanitising Tunnels and Booths to fight against the pandemic (link).
  • Amazon has built a roving robot covered in UV light bulbs to kill the coronavirus in its warehouses and Whole Foods stores (link).
  • Lidl in Ireland creates WhatsApp chatbot to let customers know when to shop (link).

Creating safe public spaces

Covid-19 will create a new appreciation of the role of architecture and urban planning in shaping wellness and brands can play a role too. Post Covid-19, consumers will demand higher levels of urban health and more civic cities. Initiatives like Centric Lab’s London Health Index and India’s Let me Breathe offering transparency around air quality and urban wellness.

Offer joyful experiences

Stores are looking at how to reinvigorate the shopping experience once they can reopen. Selfridges, for example will offer personal after-hours shopping trips, online beauty appointments and entertainment for those queuing outside when they reopen on 15 June. “We will be bringing a little bit more life and a joyful experience for customers who come to our stores” Meave Wall, Stores Director, Selfridges.

Rediscover local

With Covid-19 putting many off from visiting, crowded civic areas are now daunting to approach and with social distancing possibly in place for the foreseeable future, we may see a continuation of usage of local options. Concepts such as the Hyperlocal Micromarket will tempt consumers back to safe community spaces.

Maintain and broaden virtual offerings

Squadded Shopping Party is letting users shop remotely with friends in online fashion stores local options. Users of the website can simply open one of the online fashion stores listed, sign in and invite their friends to join their squad, then shop together.

This article was written by our Head of Trends, Nick Chiarelli