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Wrapping Your Brain Around a Pandemic

How is the coronavirus crisis affecting our mental health?

Courtesy of Pikist, used with permission.
Does physical distancing mean social isolation?
Source: Courtesy of Pikist, used with permission.

As I write this article, the world feels surreal. We’re not supposed to go outside, and when we do, we cover our mouths and noses and stay away from people. I just heard that we’re not even supposed to pet each other’s dogs anymore (though that advice appears to be an over-reaction (Brulliard, 2020). As these new behavior patterns sink in, television and movies start to look uncomfortable as the characters in them don’t practice physical distancing.

Of the varied effects this pandemic is having on the world, it is also influencing our minds. A recent preprint publication led by psychologist Jay Van Bavel tries to wrap our minds around our minds on the pandemic (van Bavel et Al., 2020).

Rationality Problems

Certain aspects of pandemics and how we are supposed to behave in them exacerbate some of our systematic irrationalities. Many believe fake news, endorse bogus “cures,” or engage in conspiratorial thinking.

This points to a larger problem: that many of the most important ways we should be thinking about problems like COVID -19 are made more difficult by the fearful state it puts us all in. Even in the best of times, we have a hard time thinking straight about magnitudes (Hsee & Rottensteich, 2004)—numbers, probabilities (Rottenstreich & Hsee, 2001), lengths of time (Peters, Kunreuther, Sgara, Slovic & Schley, 2012), and so on. We are more comfortable thinking in terms of absolutes, particularly when we are stressed out.

These rationality problems can prevent us from acting wisely. Our general levels of well-being are also affected through a variety of emotional issues.

Emotions and Mental Health

An obvious mental health issue comes from the raw fear of what might happen, causing anxiety (Fleerackers, 2020). Nearly half of people in a recent poll say that the outbreak has had a negative impact on their mental health. So if you’re feeling it, too, you’re far from alone (Achenbach, 2020). The recommended responses to a pandemic have their own negative mental health effects: the two primary behavioral changes asked of people are to wash their hands (which seems to have no drawbacks) and physical distancing from other people. Unfortunately, physical distancing is in direct conflict with our need to connect with other people—a need that is increased during times of stress (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).

Separation from loved ones and feelings of uncertainty that often accompany quarantine and isolation can cause boredom, insomnia, indecisiveness, depression, stress, irritability, poor concentration, frustration, anger, and aggression that lasts even after the quarantine is over. Signs of post-traumatic stress disorder were found to appear even three years later for some hospital workers. One study of parents found that during a disease outbreak, 28% of those quarantined developed trauma-related symptoms, compared to a control group at 6%. But the most common psychological symptoms seem to be low mood and irritability (Brooks et Al., 2020).

The financial problems associated with isolation exacerbate all forms of distress, particularly for those who are already poor. Interestingly, other demographic factors, such as gender or whether one has children, do not seem to have an effect, though pre-existing mental health conditions are understudied. Isolation (Cacioppo, Hughes, Waite, Hawkley & Thisted, 2006) and recessions (Cooper, 2011) can cause depression, and some are predicting a wave of depression problems in the wake of all of this isolation (Kanter & Manbeck, 2020). Some of the best practices for reducing anxiety, such as socializing and exercise (O'Connor, Herring, McDowell & Dishman, 2019), are more difficult when we are trying to stay in our homes.

Being isolated contributes to mental health issues, of course, but also physical health problems related to the heart and immune systems (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Our craving for social contact resembles brain patterns found in hunger for food (Tomova, Want, Thompson, Matthews Takahashi, Tye & Saxe, 2020). Many people have tried to compensate with communication mediated with technology: texting, phoning, and voice chat.

Although it might feel like all of these methods give us the benefits of socializing, this feeling is deceptive (Helliwell & Huang, 2013). Text messages and online social networks do not provide the benefits of real social connection, and Facebook can even exacerbate feelings of isolation—it’s the junk food of socializing (Davies, 2015). One study had girls take a stressful test and get reassured by their mothers in one of four ways: in person, on the phone, through texting, or not at all. The in-person and phone reassurance caused stress levels to drop, but the text was as good as nothing (Seltzer, Prososki, Zeigler & Pollak, 2012). Even millennials are making phone calls, an activity they have traditionally avoided (Bindley, 2020).

On the other side of isolation is forced company, sometimes with people you might prefer not to be trapped with. Sometimes this can mean your own children, who, love them as you do, can get on your nerves after a while. One friend of mine told me she now has four jobs: she’s a department chair, a professor, a parent, and a teacher. She and her husband struggle to fit everything into their days. People with children at home face a great deal of stress. But there are darker ways of being trapped with someone: There are reports that the “stay at home” advice is leading to increased domestic violence (Sachedina & Forani, 2020).

Undoubtedly some of this increase is simply because domestic partners are spending more time together—that is, even if the probability of violence per hour of exposure remained the same, now there are simply many more hours, which would increase the violence. However, it is also plausible that the confinement and stir-craziness are fraying nerves and making people more prone to hurt others, bother verbally and physically.

Political Effects

Perceived vulnerability to disease has an unfortunate side effect of increased prejudice toward outgroups (Jackson et Al., 2019) and ethnocentrism in general (Schaller & Neuberg, 2012).

Many people have suggested that being online results in an “echo chamber,” where you only interact with people who share your political views, leading to the exclusion of important information and increased polarization. Available data do not seem to support this, however. People do get exposed to cross-political content online (Bakshy, Messing & Adamic, 2015). And studies of online communities find that one’s political leanings are poor predictors of who they talk to. We often “friend” or follow people online for very flimsy reasons (Minozzi, Song, Lazer, Neblo & Ognyanova, 2020)—perhaps because you had a positive interaction with them in a bowling league—and then you see and comment on each other’s political posts, where you might never have engaged in a conversation about politics with them at the bowling alley (Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017).

What is true is that people tend to click on and follow news sources that they perceive share their values and the views they already have. This bias has long been known (confirmation and congruence biases) and is nothing new to online social networks.

Luckily, countering the xenophobia that infectious disease fear encourages in people are feelings of coming together—we are all in this, and being in a shared experience can make people feel as though we are all in the same group (Davies, 2020). Nobody’s immune to this virus, although poorer people and people of color are at greater risk.

Disagreements about the nature of the pandemic and what to do about it can be exacerbated when issues become politicized. This happened with climate change. Before 2010, people’s views on human-caused climate change could be predicted based on their understanding of science. After 2010, this no longer held, and people’s opinions were better predicted by their politics (Nisbet & Myers, 2007), and climate change deniers had a better understanding of the science than believers (Guber, 2013).

Different responses to infectious disease cause different reactions to the left and the right—issues of personal freedom and accountability, the openness of borders, and so on. Rejections of particular responses based on political ideology can lead to acceptance or rejection of beliefs about the state of the world, just like in climate change. This happened in Italy (Boccato, 2020). More extreme anti-immigrant political movements can be strengthened when pandemics stoke the fires of ethnocentrism.

The words we use to describe our problems suggest what kinds of solutions we endorse, as well as having other effects. Are we experiencing a panic, or a pandemic, or a crisis, or a disaster, or a flu season? In some predominantly white countries, there have been coronavirus-related physical attacks on ethnic Asian people. This is probably exacerbated by characterizations of the virus as the “Chinese virus.”

Looking Forward

How can we use what we know of psychology to encourage good behavior during a pandemic?

One thing we might want to do is reduce behaviors that come out of feelings of panic. Popular notions of how people respond to crises suggest that people will resort to panic and looting. In fact, the term “panic” describes so poorly how people react in these situations that psychologists have stopped using the term altogether (Quarantelli, 2001). In fact, in the early stages of disasters, people often come together to help each other, a time of universal brotherhood that is often remembered fondly years later. It is true that selfish purchasing behavior can lead to others not getting what they need—a behavior known as “dysfunctional stockpiling” or “panic buying.”

Unfortunately, these runs on products, some important and others not so much, are exacerbated by the very media provider who report on them (van Bavel et al., 2020). (As such I won’t mention any examples from the COVID-19 pandemic, because doing so makes the problem worse).

In fact, reporting on bad behaviors in general encourages those behaviors because of a well-documented effect of “social proof.” Basically, it says that people will tend to think it’s okay to behave in ways that they perceive everybody else behaving (Cialdini & Goldstein, 2004). By celebrating and sharing stories of good behavior, rather than focusing on those who break the pandemic rules, we encourage more people to get with the program.

We can also appeal to people’s moral sense. When people feel they are physical distancing because it’s the right thing to do, rather than because they feel they are being forced to do it, distress symptoms seem to be reduced (Brooks, et Al., 2020).

During a terrible time, science suggests that focusing on the good seems a wise approach.

References are in order of citation.

For an audio version of much of this material, see the episode of my podcast called Minding the Brain.


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