A lot of predictions were made about COVID's social impact. How did they hold up? NPR's Scott Simon asks Wharton School management professor Ethan Mollick about research into pandemic predictions and how to make the people around you happy.

A lot of predictions were made about COVID's social impact. How did they hold up?

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Those who study innovation and entrepreneurship at a business school probably spend a lot of time reading scientific papers on human behavior, social science and much more.

That's pretty much true, Ethan Mollick?

ETHAN MOLLICK: Oh, very much so.

SIMON: Of course, that is Ethan Mollick, and he teaches management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. He's been reading those papers, so we'll just take his word for what a lot of them say.

Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

MOLLICK: I'm thrilled to be here.

SIMON: I want to begin with something that that you noticed as you compared fields of study and various predictions about the pandemic. Virologists and social scientists both made, I'll call them, projections, if not predictions, about what we might have been through and at what cost at this point. How do those look now?

MOLLICK: What is really interesting is, at least through the end of 2020, the virologists and medical professionals were all too optimistic for how well the pandemic would work out. And the sociologists, psychologists were all too pessimistic. And everybody missed a lot of the details.

SIMON: Fill us in on some of the particulars.

MOLLICK: Sure. So everybody, including laypeople and virologists, all thought that there would be far fewer cases of the disease and far fewer deaths than there actually were a year later. And generally, the sociologists and psychologists were more negative on their predictions. Everybody, including the laypeople, underpredicted the spike in violence, but everyone expected there to be a lot more loneliness than actually turned out to happen.

SIMON: There is a lot of depression, isn't there?

MOLLICK: It didn't look like as much as we had thought in that case. And everyone was predicting a lot more depression from being alone than actually showed up in the end-of-2020 surveys.

SIMON: Forgive me if I cite this old maxim to you, but to a carpenter, the solution to everything is a nail, right?


SIMON: And could the virologists and scientists simply - that was the world they knew, and they trusted that would work out. And they didn't account for the varieties of human behavior.

MOLLICK: Our goal was to try and predict the future based on the past and tell you how humans work and how things are going to happen. But it turns out humans are really complicated, even more complicated than viruses. And I don't think everyone knew what the sociological implications or psychological implications of a quarantine and a deadly disease and government confusion and all of that happening at the same time were. So I think it's hard to predict, sometimes, the future more than we think. One of the really interesting lessons, actually, of this whole thing was that everybody not only guessed wrong, but everyone expressed too much certainty. So it isn't just that we were wrong; it's that we also should be a little more humble about our level of certainty when faced with truly world-changing situations.

SIMON: A lot of us will remember the scientific method from grade school - hypothesis, tests, not science unless you can replicate the results. What have we learned through this, do you think?

MOLLICK: Well, I think the method works amazingly well. Again, if you look at the triumphs - right? - we got vaccines. We got, you know, antibody treatments. We have medicines - all in record time. So I think that the issue, though, is learning is slow from pandemics. We, thank goodness, only go through one of these every hundred years or so. So it's hard to learn from rare events.

SIMON: I'd like to try to end on a note of joy. You've collected a couple of studies that reveal how to make the people around you happy.

MOLLICK: Yeah. So there has been a lot of happiness research. And among the things that we have been learning - people appreciate gratitude more than you think. And it's much less awkward to give it.

SIMON: Yeah.

MOLLICK: People appreciate compliments more than you think. People appreciate partial help. If you can't solve someone's complete problem, just helping them a little bit actually makes them feel really grateful. So the lesson of a lot of this research is reach out more. Say more nice things. And you'd be surprised at both how it makes the giver feel good and the receiver feel good.

SIMON: You have been a great interview. We've learned a lot. Ethan Mollick of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania.

Thanks so much.

MOLLICK: Thank you.

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