Why Some People Are Still Not Staying at Home

Research explains our psychological response to COVID-19.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

Photo by GoaShape on Unsplash
Source: Photo by GoaShape on Unsplash

Selfish. Stupid. Dangerous. Evil. These are the words being used to describe people who are still going about their lives as if nothing has changed. But, as I discuss at length in my book Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity's Dark Side, it's important that we look at the science of bad behaviour rather than jumping to conclusions.

These past weeks we have seen rising death tolls, unprecedented government responses to COVID-19, and daily life being radically altered for much of the world. Many of us have adapted to a life of staying at home. However, confusingly and alarmingly, we are also still seeing photos of full beaches and busy streets.

Given the now thoroughly saturated news cycle, it seems impossible that people don't know that they should stay home. So, why are some people still behaving dangerously?

Emotional epidemiology

In 2009 Danielle Ofri1 wrote about a phenomenon she observed in her patients. She found that there was a psychological contagion of myth and suspicion that put people and their families in danger during the H1N1 ('Swine') flu outbreak. She wrote:

"Just as there are patterns of infection, there seem to be patterns of emotional reaction (emotional epidemiology) associated with new illnesses"

Diseases, especially ones like COVID-19 (and at the time, H1N1) that can lurk asymptomatic within anyone we meet, capture both our imagination and our fears. We become scared and uncertain.

And, scared and uncertain people often do two things:

  1. Assume the worst in others
  2. Act irrationally

Let's discuss both of these.

Fundamental attribution bias and COVID-19

Because we cannot see what people are thinking, we need to try to deduce it from how they behave. A core aspect of what psychologists call theory of mind is the ability to attribute things like intent, emotions, or knowledge, to others. But most of the time, this just means that we are guessing why people do what they do.

In the current pandemic, this also leads us to automatically make ethical assessments of other people. It can lead to us thinking that people are intentionally doing or saying things that will increase the spread of this disease, even though we have little way of knowing their actual intentions.

Theory of mind is fallible and can quickly lead to fundamental attribution errors. According to Paul Andrews2:

The “fundamental attribution error” (FAE) is the tendency to assume that an actor's behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation.

In other words, just because someone is acting in a way that may lead to the death of others who become infected by COVID-19 does not mean they don't care if their actions cause people to die. But our brains naturally jump to that conclusion. We assume that people who act badly, are bad, even in uncertain and complicated situations like a global pandemic.

Andrews frames this within an evolutionary argument: That our brains are programmed to err on the side of caution to survive. Caution in the context of a pandemic is assuming that people are dangerous and selfish, because if we accidentally trust a person who is ill we play with death.

But this conclusion is not based on rational decision-making. It undervalues the importance of community and support to make it through a crisis. Instead, it is based on a bias that we jump to because we are scared, and we default to automatic and simplified thinking.

Why we act irrationally during a pandemic

Let's set aside our fundamental attribution error, and consider other options. While the odd person might be acting out of selfishness or malice, some other reasons why we may not heed advice to socially distance include that:

  1. We can't grasp it. Humans struggle to grasp big, complex, problems. It feels like we are in a dystopian movie, rather than real life. The almost impossibility of grasping this pandemic can lead to ignoring or denying the scale and reality of it altogether.
  2. We engage in wishful thinking. In the digital age, it doesn't take long to find an article that tells you what you want to hear. Wishful thinking can lead to cherry-picking statements that minimize or catastrophise the severity of the situation. If you have the misconception that the world is ending, you may stockpile to excess and deplete resources for those in need. If you have the misconception that it's no worse than the flu you put others at risk by socialising as you normally would.
  3. We don't believe it. Our newsfeeds have long been filled with sensationalised stories. If we are constantly told that our world is in crisis, we may not take the news seriously when it tries to convince us that this crisis is different. We may have become desensitised by the news that cries wolf.
  4. We are confused. We don't know what we should do. What we did yesterday whilst following Government guidance may today be seen as a faux pas. This leads to a learned helplessness where we may just give up trying to figure out how to behave correctly and instead use our intuition as our guide.

Knowing about these biases can help us to overcome them. The safest way to proceed during the COVID-19 epidemic is to heed the advice given by our governments' epidemiology experts. They have far more knowledge and data than we can hope to gain by trying to figure out the appropriate response ourselves. They may not always get it right, but they will get it more right than any one of us can on our own. This is the time to crush those intuitions that are telling us that we are cleverer than international experts. We aren't.

There is something else that has a tremendous impact on our likelihood to stay home: behaviour contagion.

Behaviour contagion

      According to Christy Duan and colleagues in the book Psychiatry of Pandemics3, we need to study behaviour contagion to understand our psychological and behavioural response to pandemics. According to their research:

      "Behavior contagion can herald, mirror, and match the actual physical contagion of an infectious illness in an outbreak."

      In other words, just like one person having COVID-19 is likely to spread the disease to two or three other people, the same is true for behaviour. One person refusing to socially distance may influence two or three others to do the same.

      This can lead to literal transmission of the disease between those who are not socially distancing, and it can lead to a wider 'transmission' of the psychological error that it's fine to go on with life as usual. This behaviour contagion is particularly relevant in highly stressful situations and can create a vicious cycle.

      But this is not all bad news, because the reverse is also true. Adhering to advice given by epidemiologists is also contagious. If we stay home we are likely to motivate 2-3 others to also stay home. This is how every one of us can make a difference not just by preventing the virus from spreading locally, but by potentially influencing people around the world to stay home.

      In conclusion: Stay home. Don't let your brain trick you into assuming that people who aren't socially distancing are necessarily selfish. And to convince others to stay home, the best thing you can do is... stay home.

      Facebook image: Riderfoot/Shutterstock

        References

        1. Ofri, D. (2009). The emotional epidemiology of H1N1 influenza vaccination. New England Journal of Medicine, 361(27), 2594-2595. Access: https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp0911047

        2. Andrews, P. W. (2001). The psychology of social chess and the evolution of attribution mechanisms: Explaining the fundamental attribution error. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(1), 11-29. Access: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1090513800000593

        3. Duan, C., Linder, H., & Huremović, D. (2019). Societal, Public, and [Emotional] Epidemiological Aspects of a Pandemic. In Psychiatry of Pandemics (pp. 45-53). Access online: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-15346-5_4

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