Social Distancing Among Vampire Bats

If bats can do it, why can't we?

Posted Oct 29, 2020

 Andrea Bohl/Pixabay
Source: Andrea Bohl/Pixabay

Recent research has provided evidence that vampire bats living in the wild self-isolate when they are feeling ill. Although it was already known that sick bats socially isolate in laboratory settings, this was the first study to show that bats self-isolate in the wild (Ripperger et al., 2020).

Adult female vampire bats were injected with an immune-challenging substance which made them feel sick. They were then released so that their behavior could be tracked and compared to healthy control bats. Relative to control bats, the sick bats “associated with fewer bats, spent less time near others, and were less socially connected” to others.

“Limiting face to face contact with others is the best way to reduce the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).” (www.cdc.gov).

The message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been clear and consistent. It has been posted for months on the CDC website along with a specific description of what social distancing means:

“To practice social or physical distancing, stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arms’ length) from other people who are not from your household in both indoor and outdoor spaces.”

Estimates are that roughly 47% of Americans have maintained the recommended 6-foot distance when in public during this past week. This is slightly less than the 49% who socially distanced one week ago, based upon self-report. (www.ipsos.com). This drop in adhering to recommendations has occurred in spite of the rising numbers of COVID infections across the country during the past week.

It has been difficult for many to understand why so many Americans are still ignoring this directive, after months of struggling with the devastating consequences of this pandemic. In the eight months since the nation was alerted to the risks of COVID-19, multiple explanations have been given for the lack of adherence to the CDC guidelines.

Why aren’t more Americans socially distancing?

One of the earlier explanations was given back in March 2020 by a fellow Psychology Today blogger. It was an acknowledgment of the difficulty of sustained empathy and self-control.

“Realize that social distancing in this way takes an incredible amount of self-control, and it is hard psychological work. Empathy and self-control can be exhausting.”

By April of this year, the list of explanations had grown more comprehensive. One analysis (health.com) provided four different reasons for the lack of social distancing. Briefly stated, these included:

1. Mixed messages from leadership caused many people to be unconvinced of the importance of social distancing.

2. During the initial months, many Americans had no personal connection to the disease, unless they were in contact with front-line workers or infected persons. This allowed them to deny the reality of the threat to themselves.

3. Fear of the pandemic was overwhelming for some, and the threat was too scary to even think about. When fear is excessive, a percentage of the population is prone to denial in order to manage their fears and go about their daily lives.

4. When overwhelmed by fear, some will act in defiance, as if they are above the threat. This provides them with a (false) sense of control over their own well being.

What’s affecting the choices of America’s youth during COVID-19?

More recently, in July, another analysis offered explanations from those who refused to socially distance. This report considered in particular the reasons given by the younger generation, roughly in the 18 to 29 age group. (advisory.com). A certain percentage of this group reportedly refused to follow the guidelines due to a general sense that the challenges of their generation (climate change, school shootings, high suicide risk for young adults) have not been respected or prioritized. The youth who were interviewed reported having little motivation to stay home and limit their lives in order to protect the mostly older and more at-risk generation.

This hesitance to socially distance for the protection of others was also noted by youth who are struggling with mental health issues which are worsened by isolation. They appeared to be weighing the risk of contacting COVID-19 against the risk of making themselves more vulnerable to depressive episodes by self-isolating.

Concluding thoughts

To sum up, a variety of reasons have been offered to explain the widespread lack of adherence to the CDC guidelines. Each of these is understandable as a motivator of human behavior. However, the consequences of this refusal to comply with preventative guidelines have been massive in terms of the loss of lives. In addition, getting this disease under control is our best (and probably only) path to economic recovery. It is truly critical to follow the guidelines for both social distancing and mask-wearing.

Clearly the vampire bat has a much simpler life and a smaller range of behavioral choices when faced with disease. They follow their survival instincts when they self-isolate. It appears that they also act in a way that makes it more likely that their communities survive the presence of an infectious disease.

We know that the disease can be spread by individuals who don't feel sick. We have been advised to use preventative measures for that reason. Doesn't the ability to take action based upon scientific knowledge (even without personal experience) set us apart as humans?

If we can't absorb and act upon our collective knowledge, what does that mean for our future?

Perhaps we should take a lesson from the vampire bat.

References

Ripperger, S. P., Stockmaier, S., & Carter, G.G. (2020). Tracking sickness effects on social encounters via continuous proximity sensing in wild vampire bats. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1093/beheco/araa111. Published: 27 October 2020.