“Not sure if it’s because of recent times of lockdown etc but Christ I talk to myself a lot these days.” So tweeted the actor and presenter Emily Atack – and she is not alone.
Confined to our homes and freed from the judgments of others – perceived or otherwise – growing numbers of us are admitting to quirky behaviours, from talking to ourselves to singing more loudly in the shower or living out the fashion eccentricities we’d never have dreamed of in the office.
Psychologists told the Guardian that people are likely to become more eccentric over lockdown, displaying new or accentuated behaviours ranging from unusual mannerisms and daily routines to discovering unconventional interests.
Offbeat behaviour might be the result of needing the mental and physical stimulation previously attained from mixing in work and social environments, or a coping strategy subconsciously adopted in response to the stress of the pandemic, experts say.
Dr Sally Austen, a consultant clinical psychologist, said: “The development of eccentric behaviours is a consequence of having fewer people around to judge you. Being in an office environment holds you to a certain standard of behaviour. There’s no one at home to keep you to those checks and balances. There’s nothing to keep a lid on your eccentricities.”
The impact could be positive, though only in moderation, she said. “This could be a lovely thing: we could all discover more about ourselves. The only risk is if those discoveries go awry and go too far … if you find yourself doing something, the next question is: is it a sweet little eccentricity or is it harming myself or anyone else?
“Becoming obsessed with online gambling is very different to becoming obsessed with singing Barry White loudly when working, which probably isn’t going to do anyone any harm.”
Mark Webb, 58, a company director from Kingston upon Thames, has become unusually close to his garden wildlife since March. “I have individually named the birds who visit the feeder in the garden,” he said. “The pair of nuthatches are Nigel and Norma, the blue tits are Bobby, Brian and Brenda. There are so many goldfinches, however, that I have now run out of G names.”
Alan Jewitt from Cumbria has redefined his office dress code. “I decided my Christmas pullover should get more use than a couple of days a year,” said thesoftware developer, 62. “Also I prefer wearing shorts, so I spent March to November in a Gremlins Christmas pullover and shorts.”
While some research has suggested that deeply evolved responses to disease and fears of contagion could lead us to become more publicly conformist and tribalistic – and so less accepting of eccentricity – other experts say the pandemic environment is ripe for idiosyncrasies to flourish in private.
“People have had to respond to a massive change in their lives and lifestyles, with no warning, and they’ve had to do that in the absence of social cues, rules or human contact,” said Dr Gavin Morgan, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and vice-chair of the British Psychological Society’s division of educational and child psychology.
“It’s easy to see how this could lead to the creation of entirely individualised new routines and techniques to alleviate boredom. The human need for the stimulation we previously got from being with others has to be provided ourselves. It’s easy to see how this would result in eccentric behaviours.”
Dr Abigael San, a chartered clinical psychologist, said: “Because there’s no subjective monitor for how we present ourselves at the moment, it follows that people will have less of a screen and less of a sheen to them.”
These behaviours may also act as a proxy for the colleagues, friends and family who we see less frequently in lockdown. Dr Almuth McDowall, a professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London, said: “Some of us will become more eccentric, working on our own so much. We’re all missing those micro-interactions with other human beings, so we make them happen in other ways, which in lockdown conditions means making them happen with ourselves as the only other person present.”
So how should we handle the new or enhanced mannerisms we notice in our everyday lives? Simon Gelsthorpe, an honorary visiting senior research fellow at the University of Bradford, said they were likely to indicate the existence of a new emotion, which may be worth exploring. “Take a little step back from yourself and ask yourself what it’s about,” he said.