Why the Fear of Contagion Makes People Irrational

The roots of public fear perception.

Posted Feb 29, 2020

The outbreak of COVID-19 has dominated news coverage and created widespread anxiety, even in people living miles away and not directly affected. Being at a very early stage, the virus understandably has triggered fear and panic. The epidemic of novel threats can easily exacerbate anxiety and lead to biased information processing.

1. Our primitive response to fear. Risk perception is rarely rational. Instead, people assess risks using a mixture of cognitive skills (weighing the evidence) and emotional appraisals (intuition or imagination). Cognitive evaluations of risk are sensitive to probabilities and outcomes. In contrast, emotional reactions are sensitive to the vividness of visual imagery, and a variety of other factors that play a minimal role in cognitive evaluations. As a result of these differences, people often experience a discrepancy between emotional reaction to, and logical evaluations, of a threat  (Loewenstein, et al., 2001). According to LeDoux (2015), while conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. As a result, fear blocks rational deliberation and prevents addressing real problems.

2. Excessive worry. Worry in itself is not bad. But excessive worrying can be harmful. Worrying is a form of problem-solving, presumably helping a person plan and preparing for future (potentially) negative events. For instance, we feel anxiety when we anticipate that something bad will happen, and we plan to prevent potential harm to ourselves. However, unknown risks stimulate excessive worry. Intolerance of uncertainty regarding future events is the most important predictor of excessive worry. As a result, we tend to overestimate both the likelihood and the intensity of threat and danger. The process of blowing things out of proportion leads the worrier to ask automatic questions of the “what if?” variety and, by doing so, the individual sees the worst-case scenario (Davey and Levy, 1998).

3. Narrow attention. Fear narrows the focus of attention. Individuals tend to process information in a manner consistent with their views of the world and themselves. This bias (selective processing) is found in anxious individuals, who view the world as dangerous (Beck, 1995). Consequently, they tend to interpret ambiguous information as threatening and display avoidance behavior. For example, the epidemic has had a major impact on American Chinese restaurants and U.S. Chinatowns.

4. Emotional contagion. We tend to “catch” the emotions (joy and fear) of others when perceiving their emotional expressions. For example, when you have a casual conversation with someone who is anxious, you tend to walk away from the encounter feeling somewhat anxious yourself. As a result, a group of people unknown to one another may spontaneously come to adopt emotional unity. Consider the case of a stampede in which a crowd of people collectively begins running with no clear direction or purpose.

5. Self-confidence. The perception of threat is also determined by one’s self-confidence (beliefs in your own ability to cope with a challenge). The greater one’s doubts in one’s level of competence, the more one will worry about adverse outcomes. However, when a confident attitude is adopted, the individual focuses on the positives in a situation, and may even assume a greater sense of personal control.

In sum, excessive worry and anxiety impair our judgment. Therefore, catching our distorted thinking is an important strategy for reducing anxiety. Experts suggest that truth and transparency are crucial (Slovic, 2010). A timely and honest explanation of risk from a credible source is essential for containing fear during an epidemic. Experts also agree that giving people what they need to know to protect them can help reduce panic and overreaction.


Beck JS (1995) Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. New York: Guilford Press

Davey G.C.L. & Levy S. (1998) Catastrophic worrying: personal inadequacy and a perseverative iterative style as features of the catastrophising process. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107, 576-586.

LeDoux, J. (2015), Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety. NY:Viking.

Loewenstein, G. et al., (2001) Risk as Feelings. Psychological Bulletin, 127 (2):267-286

Slovic, P. (2010). The Feeling of Risk: New Perspectives on Risk Perception. London, Earthscan.