Moving to the country in the midst of the coronavirus crisis: Have cities reached their growth limit?

In the current state of emergency, many urban-dwelling families have sought shelter in the Estonian countryside. While precise statistics about the total number of such families is currently lacking, secondary data, such as changes in data traffic volume in different parts of Estonia, seem to confirm the trend.
Image credit: Inga Külmoja /

The state of emergency imposed to combat the spread of the new coronavirus is temporary, but it will have lasting effects. To be more precise, the question is how spatial relations between countries, companies, and people will be rearranged. Spatial arrangement and mobility are also bound to change. As cities are reaching their growth limit, these changes, in turn, have made us ponder whether the current urban-to-rural migration is temporary or marks the beginning of a major trend. There are arguments for and against this issue.

Rapid urbanisation started in Europe about two centuries ago, when the industrial revolution prompted a population shift and movement of jobs from rural areas to cities. Since then, the share of urban population has increased throughout the world, constituting about 80% of the population in developed countries and 70% in Estonia.

However, it is unlikely that the entire rural population would resettle in urban areas. Thus, in time, the likelihood of reaching a turning point will increase, often triggered by a specific event—the final straw that will break the camel’s back. The spread of the new coronavirus and the understanding that densely populated areas are a perfect breeding ground for such a crisis make the argument of the turning point all the more convincing.

Reaching the limits of urban growth has been predicted before—most recently during the 1970s global economic crisis, which triggered a population shift from cities to rural areas. The American human geographer Brian J.L. Berry proposed the term ‘counterurbanisation’, arguing that in the United States the concentration of population in cities, or urbanisation, was replaced by a state of population deconcentration and a move to smaller towns and the countryside. Ann Marksoo has observed a similar trend in Estonia, introducing the term ‘migration turn’ (Est. rändepööre).

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How happy are international students at UT?

In autumn 2019, the International Student Barometer (ISB) survey was conducted at the University of Tartu (UT) to collect international students’ feedback about their studies and the level of support they receive at UT.

In total, 639 students (55% master’s, 29% bachelor’s, 14% PhD students and 2% exchange students) participated in the study, with 532 completing the full survey. As a part of the survey, students were able to provide open comments. Let’s check what international students really think about the different aspects of their study experience at UT 😀

Arrival experience 

At the Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport. Image credit: Anna Branets

92% of international students reported to be satisfied with their arrival experience at UT. The international students highly evaluated the finance (98%) and accommodation (93%) offices, pre-arrival information (93%), formal welcoming (93%), meeting the staff (92%), and local orientation (91%).

In comparison to the results of the previous ISB conducted in 2017, the arrival experience satisfaction rate has increased (87% in 2017 vs. 92% in 2019). In addition, the overall result at UT is higher than the global ISB (89%). Students put special emphasis on the orientation activities and pre-arrival information in the comments: 

I was really amazed with the friendly welcome and the number of lectures we had during the orientation days. I like that these lectures were from completely different perspectives. Of course, I cannot help mentioning a welcome pack. It was a pleasure to receive and use different things from it. Very useful! Also, we had an orientation day at our faculty. It contributed a lot to the understanding of the study process, requirements, courses, and so on.

At the orientation days at UT. Image credit: Andres Tennus
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Health as a value, health as a right

Can you still see Mona Lisa smile? Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

A saying in Italian goes like this: “Quando c’è la salute, c’è tutto” (When there is health, there is everything). That is, everything that matters is there, as long as you are healthy.

Arguably, and strange as it may sound given the coronavirus pandemic, most people may have actually been (at least physically) very healthy in the last few weeks, and probably healthier than they would have been without the pandemic. The reason is clear: the lockdown measures either strongly recommended or enforced in most countries have kept most people physically distant from other people. As a result, the chances to catch any virus have dramatically dropped for most people.

But it has also become clear that the Italian saying is false, at least if understood literally. Most people’s health may have been secured, but at the price of missing out, at least for some time, on many of the things that matter.

No, when there is (physical) health, not everything that matters is there. It’s not easy to articulate the goods that have been totally sacrificed or drastically set back by the enforced or voluntary confinement, let alone compose a complete list, but I’ll try:

1) The freedom to move around, both in one’s surroundings and between cities or countries, whenever one wants and for whatever reason;

2) Face-to-face social interaction (with schoolmates, teachers, professors, colleagues, friends, relatives, lovers…) and the benefits (including, e.g. mental health) that usually come with face-to-face as opposed to virtual interactions (an important debate to be had here, by psychologists and philosophers, is precisely what the face-to-face benefit differential is);

3) The personal freedom usually afforded to parents by being able to rely on kindergartens and schools (as well as children’s freedom from parents!);

4) Any kind of work that cannot be done (or cannot be done well) from home, not to mention the very fact that many people have become unemployed;

5) Related to this, the overall economic wealth in many countries;

6) The possibility of many leisure activities, again including their many benefits;

7) Not least, a balanced relationship between the state and its citizens, where the state does not systematically present itself to law-abiding citizens in the sinister guise of policemen controlling their behavior.

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How psychology can help shape policies (3/3): Measuring influence

This is the third post in the series on how psychology can help shape policies. The first post focused on modelling human behaviour and the second on influencing behaviour.

An inalienable component of good policy-making is analysing the impacts the policies have. Psychology can also help at this stage, especially since, in addition to overt behaviour, it is necessary to understand the impact of the policy on covert psychological phenomena, such as attitudes, stereotypes, or thought patterns.

Given that reliable measurement is a cornerstone of any scientific discipline, psychologists have generated a rich set of assessment tools over the years to measure covert psychological phenomena. In the lab, various technological aids can be used, such as the analysis of how the eyes move, as well as various biological signals reflecting processes in the brain and the body. In the context of policy making, however, perhaps the most valuable tools that psychology can offer are reliable questionnaires for assessing covert psychological phenomena.

As early as around 1980 the University of Tartu psychology lab was equipped with a computer. Today’s equipment allows measurement of various brain and body signals. Standing from left to right: Aavo Luuk, Urmas Mast, Väino Vaske. Sitting: Jüri Allik and Julia Berger (later Blum). Photo from the university archive

Why should policy-makers care about covert psychological phenomena? Occasionally, a covert phenomenon, such as a gender stereotype, may be a key predictor of some overt behavioural goal, such as bridging the pay gap. For instance, in order to increase the share of women in highly paid positions, a policy-maker may decide to target gender stereotypes such as the ungrounded belief that women’s personality traits are unsuitable for top executive positions1 ELLEMERS, N. (2018). Gender Stereotypes. – Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 275–298. DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-122216-011719. . When assessing  the effectiveness of such a policy, the policy-maker could complement wage statistics with direct measures of stereotypes (see, e.g.2 ALLIK, J., MÕTTUS, R., REALO, A. (2010). Does National Character Reflect Mean Personality Traits When Both are Measured by the Same Instrument? – Journal of Research in Personality, 44, 62–69. DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2009.10.008. ).

At other times, covert psychological phenomena may be the ultimate aims of policies in and of themselves. For instance, it is becoming increasingly clear that the growth of economic value, measured as the gross domestic product, is not a sufficient criterion for making various decisions. Alongside GDP, it is important to measure public well-being, which has both objective components (e.g., access to health services) and essentially subjective components (e.g., individual health satisfaction). Identifying and measuring the various components of subjective well-being has a long history in psychology3 KÖÖTS‐AUSMEES, L., REALO, A. (2015). The Association between Life Satisfaction and Self-Reported Health Status in Europe. – European Journal of Personality, 29, 647–657. DOI: 10.1002/per.2037. .

The advice of psychologists and other behavioural scientists is also worth seeking in situations in which a studied phenomenon is not necessarily psychological but questionnaires are used as the main research method, as in, for example, regular state-commissioned monitoring surveys.

Among other things, psychologists are experts at making questionnaires. They know that the answers depend on how the questions have been formulated. Image credit: Inga Külmoja

Psychologists have also studied how the obtained answers depend on how the questions have been formulated. For instance, asking respondents directly whether they think that men are more capable than women is unlikely to reveal true levels of gender stereotypes. Instead, respondents can be presented with more indirect questions, such as: ‘Do men and women have different abilities?’

Psychologists possess various methods to manage these risks, among other things, by controlling the length of questionnaires4 KONSTABEL, K., LÖNNQVIST, J-E., LEIKAS, S., VELÁZQUEZ, R. G., QIN, H., VERKASALO, M., WALKOWITZ, G. (2017). Measuring Single Constructs by Single Items: Constructing an Even Shorter Version of the “Short Five” Personality Inventory. – PLOS ONE, 12, e0182714. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0182714. . Estonia already has several good examples of how such measures have been applied in monitoring surveys5 KAARE, P-R., MÕTTUS, R., KONSTABEL, K. (2009). Pathological Gambling in Estonia: Relationships with Personality, Self-Esteem, Emotional States and Cognitive Ability. – Journal of Gambling Studies, 25, 377–390. DOI: 10.1007/s10899-009-9119-y. , and this is encouraging for future attempts.

Andero Uusberg is a Senior Research Fellow in Affective Psychology at the University of Tartu. Kariina Laas is the Head of the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology.

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Where is global tourism going?

Overtourism is one of the major concerns in the tourism industry – not these days, of course, when the world is locked down due to the global outbreak of COVID-19, but when the world gets back to normal, overtourism will most likely return.

In the next ten years, the travel market will be hit by a massive wave of millennial travellers from Asia, especially from China and India. This will have a major impact on the industry. Therefore, the hospitality industry should be prepared to make certain adjustments to meet their needs. The solution could lie in opening new areas and destinations that travellers have not previously considered.

We’ll be also seeing considerably younger travellers from China in the next ten years. Image credit: Oleg Afonin, Flickr CC BY 2.0

Millennials (25–35 years old) are in general the largest group of consumers who are tremendously changing the consumption patterns established by their predecessors. The majority of Millennials trust a friend’s endorsement most. About half admit that their purchases are influenced by their own experience with a brand and the reviews left on the websites. Social media helps them create brand awareness and trust. It also serves as a major platform for customer service.

Likewise, Generation Z (9-24 years old) does not trust traditional forms of advertising either. They rather rely on peer testimonials and influencers whose values and interests they share. However, they are less into Facebook and Twitter, and more into Instagram and Snapchat to showcase and search for appealing videos and images.

The influence of social media, especially Instagram, on Millennials and Generation Z should not be underestimated, because that is where they also search for the next big travel destination (Global Wellness Summit, 2019, p. 32). Moreover, the brand promotion in social media should shift from formal ads to storytelling, which is spiced up with catchy images and videos and can give the real taste of the destination.

The demand for quality social interaction is reflected in the growing importance of the sharing economy. In addition to the classic rental service, people are willing to provide tourists with free accommodation in their place of residence. Moreover, the experience of the sharing economy is moving from the accommodation sector to other spheres. There are new home-based restaurants operating and personalized “concierge” services offered, where private individuals are giving tourists their time and assistance to discover a destination through the eyes of a local1 Collina, L., Galluzzo, L., Gerosa, G., Bellè, M., & Lidia Maiorino, M. (2017). Sharing Economy for Tourism and Hospitality: New Ways of Living and New Trends in Interior Design. The Design Journal, 20(sup1), S3448–S3463. doi:10.1080/14606925.2017.1352848, p. S3449 .

The reason why sharing economy platforms such as AirBnB have become so popular could lie in the changing guest preferences. It is important to understand that some travellers do not enjoy staying in a traditional hotel room, because they need much more space and flexibility. However, they would still like to experience the comfort and services of a luxury hotel. It feels so good to travel far away from home and stay in a place which feels like home.

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How psychology can help shape policies (2/3): Influencing behaviour

This is the second post in the series on how psychology can help shape policies. The first post focused on modelling human behaviour.

Another area in which psychology can be applied in policy making is influencing behaviour, which is the subject of persuasion research.

Who people follow

Psychologists specialising in persuasion research have explored, among other things, the impact of the personal characteristics of a message source on the credibility of the communicated message1 WILSON, E., SHERRELL, D. (1993). Source Effects in Communication and Persuasion Research: A Meta-Analysis of Effect Size. – Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 21, 101–112. DOI: 10.1007/BF02894421. . Research suggests that people are generally susceptible to persuasion by impartial experts, by people who are similar to themselves, by physically attractive people, and by those in some position of authority.

These well-established insights are still useful today. A troubling issue in Estonia and elsewhere is vaccine hesitancy on the part of parents, which is surprisingly resistant to the best efforts of doctors and other experts2 BREWER, N. T., CHAPMAN, G. B., ROTHMAN, A. J., LEASK, J., KEMPE, A. (2018). Increasing Vaccination: Putting Psychological Science into Action. – Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 18(3), 149–207. DOI: 10.1177/1529100618760521. . Part of this paradox can be explained by realizing that even though people opposed to vaccination find experts competent, they also find them to be partial advocates of conflicting interests. Persuasion research tells us that perceived partiality may undo the impact of perceived expertise. Winning back the trust of hesitant parents must therefore be considered when designing policies that aim to influence vaccination behaviour.

How and when do ad tricks influence people

One of the most prolific contributions of persuasion research is the elaboration likelihood model, which explains why logical arguments have a chance to convince only when the recipients are willing and able to scrutinise these arguments3 PETTY, R., CACIOPPO, J. (1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. – Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123–205. DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60214-2. .

In the absence of motivation or ability, people become open to influence by various tricks and gimmicks of the advertising and sales sphere (for an accessible overview, see Cialdini Influence: Psychology of Persuasion, 1984). Among such tricks, for example, is the projection of a good feeling derived from a funny commercial onto the product shown at the end of the commercial (even if the joke is completely unrelated to the brand).

Another example is the barely perceptible feeling of reciprocity when a salesperson gives someone candy or a pen, rendering the receiver slightly more susceptible to the proposition following the gift-giving, such as subscription to some service. These persuasion techniques are largely unnoticeable and unconscious, and take place on the level of automatic psychological processes.

Receiving a pen from a salesperson may seem trivial. However, you will become slightly more susceptible to his or her sales proposal even without noticing it. Image credit: Inga Külmoja
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Why you should be cautious about antibiotics: The case of Estonia

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that the number of deaths related to drug-resistant infections in 2019 was approximately 33,000 in Europe and 700,000 globally.

The large-scale and unnecessary use of antibiotics contributes to the development and spread of drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria. Statistical data also confirms that countries with the lowest rate of antibiotic consumption have fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Estonia is one of the countries where the rate of antibiotic consumption and thus also the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has been relatively low. This was confirmed in a survey carried out by Jana Lass, a research fellow of clinical pharmacology at the University of Tartu, on the ambulatory use of antibiotics in Estonia over the past 11 years (2008–2018).

Apart from this, experts in the field express concern: while only 15 years ago the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics was relatively modest in Estonia, their use has been increasing. The survey reveals that in 2008 the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics was only 5 times the use of narrow-spectrum antibiotics, whereas in 2018 broad-spectrum antibiotic consumption was 16 times higher than that of narrow-spectrum medicines.

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