The Psychology of Blaming Non-Distancers
Not social distancing is dangerous, but are we sure why non-distancers do it?
Posted March 29, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
I’ve read several articles on why some people are not following the social-distancing or stay-at-home rules. The common argument from authors and everyday readers is that these non-distancers are selfish, uncaring, or some form of stupid.
They’re “covidiots” (Hoffower, 2020). Stupidity in this context can include the misplaced motto to “carry on” in a crisis (Cummins, 2020) or the classic errors in thinking, like unrealistic optimism, wishful thinking, or bandwagon fallacy (Gillihan, 2020; Pinsker, 2020; Shaw, 2020), not that these authors ever used the word “stupid.”
What’s certain is that not social distancing is dangerous and scary, but people can do dangerous and scary things for numerous reasons beyond thinking errors and selfishness. Not that any of these reasons necessarily excuse the behavior. I’m definitely not defending any non-distancers. What the heck are they thinking?
Right, that’s the question. What are they thinking? This question is usually meant rhetorically when explaining dangerous behaviors. But truly, what is going through their minds? Why are they putting themselves and others in harm’s way? Do they have multiple thoughts? Are they weighing multiple options?
I’m not defending any non-distancers. Some of them may be pure selfish idiots, period.
But as a social scientist, I ask the “why” question non-rhetorically. There are too many non-distancers (though hopefully a numerical minority), and life is too complicated. I cannot logically claim to know what they are all thinking. On one level, who cares? They all need to conform. But there could be unique factors in some of their stories. Maybe some non-distancers are not thinking at all.
If you have to tell someone in line at the grocery store to please step six feet away from you, they might say, “I’m so sorry, I wasn’t thinking.” If a teen explains going out with friends with an I-wasn’t-thinking excuse, the parent might justifiably say, “You’re darn right you weren’t thinking, because that was so stupid.” But truly not thinking (especially during a crisis) suggests something deeper might be going on, like ingrained habits or socially conditioned peer behavior (Warr, 2002), as opposed to thinking errors. Or what may appear to be a thinking error, such as, “But all my friends said it was OK,” or “I’m young, I’m not going to get sick,” may actually be an after-the-fact rationalization when called out on stupid behavior.
My goal here is not just to approach the topic scientifically, but more so to try to reduce any potential demonizing that might be occurring against the non-distancers as a group. Not that the aforementioned authors were demonizing—quite the contrary. In particular, Gillihan wrote that a thinking error “doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person.”
Consequences of Demonizing Non-Distancers
In truth, maybe demonizing is necessary to motivate society’s response to the dangerous behavior to get the non-distancers to follow the rules. I acknowledge that possibility. But we can usually work just as hard to get people to follow important rules without demonizing all of them in a blanket outrage. There are negative consequences of demonizing that are worth trying to avoid, especially if those consequences reduce rates of compliance.
Some people will not follow the rules through a process known as reactance. When we feel our freedom threatened, many of us react instinctively in ways to restore some or all of that freedom (Myers, 2013). These would occur especially in individualistic cultures like the U.S. Demonizing those people could further strengthen their reactance and their resistance to rules.
Demonizing non-distancers or assuming they’re all doing it because of negative characteristics or intentions (or thinking errors) carries other known negative consequences, including our own anger, condescension, and even retaliatory behavior. Or if we are political or academic leaders, our rhetoric toward non-distancers can influence others to become angry and aggressive. Anger can serve a function, but anger and aggression (and accompanying stress) are also generally bad for our own health and not just for the health of those hurt by our aggression (Schroeder, 2017).
3. Reduced Ability to Prevent
Negative blanket assumptions about people who behave badly reduce our ability to prevent bad behavior through not fully understanding it. In general, looking beyond bad traits to explain bad collective behavior leads to better or more comprehensive plans to prevent bad behavior in the future.
4. Benefits for the Blamers
On the flip side, negative blanket assumptions about people who behave badly can serve psychological functions for us stay-at-homers. It’s hard to think in grays during a crisis. Black-and-white thinking (such as “Follow these rules or you’re stupid”) frees up brain space, makes things feel less uncertain, and can make us feel better about ourselves for following the rules. In general, simplistic thinking can restore feelings of control (Whitson & Galinsky, 2008). If we think that non-distancers are more likely to get sick, then blaming them may fall under victim-blaming, which has its own set of psychological benefits, including to reduce our own stress at watching these stupid people risk their health (Stalder, 2018).
Despite benefits from blaming and despite the fact that non-distancers bear responsibility to behave better, I’m also writing just to create a pause in the typical immediate thinking about non-distancers.
Situational Factors Behind Non-Distancing
During the remainder of this pause, here are some potential situational factors behind non-distancers’ behavior (again, not excuses). These factors can play a role in addition to (if not in place of) selfishness and poor thinking. Behaviors are usually caused by a combination of dispositional and situational factors, but we tend to underestimate the latter (in something called the fundamental attribution error) (Stalder, 2018).
For a long time, some intelligent non-distancers were receiving bad information about the crisis from certain news outlets or government officials (even the president). Even today, there are folks on the radio or in government who acknowledge the crisis but still promote going to work to prevent worse societal problems down the road. Some even say it’s OK if the elderly die to protect the economy (Ellefson, 2020). We can call these folks immoral if we like, but some of them at least appear to be making well-thought-out arguments (however ill-advised), which might influence some well-intentioned viewers.
Particular non-distancers who violate the stay-at-home protocol could be mentally ill (which usually has an environmental component), under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, trying to get away from an abusive home environment, or giving in to strong peer pressure from non-distancing peers.
There are lifelong social norms, like returning the offer of a handshake or not crossing the street when you see a stranger approaching. It’s time to be rude. We need to violate some norms, but it may be surprisingly hard in the moment.
If a group of people spontaneously congregate, are all of them equally at fault? Maybe a few of them were very stupid, and one of them tried very hard, but unsuccessfully, to be rude and squirm away. Ahead of time, we might need to practice what we would say to get away.
Again, none of these possibilities automatically excuse non-distancing behavior.
We may all accept that essential workers are not bound by the stay-at-home rule. But we might not always know what someone’s job is when we see them in public and criticize them. Or what if someone, despite the pressure to stay home, feels greater pressure to go out and make money somehow for their family? The government (despite strong attempts by some lawmakers) has not acted all that quickly to address the needs of poor families.
OK, the pause is over. We can get very upset at the non-distancers again if we like. Let’s simplify. We have to collectively act now to minimize the negative consequences of this crisis.
Eleanor Cummins, “‘I’ll Do What I Want’: Why the People Ignoring Social Distancing Orders Just Won’t Listen,” Vox, March 24, 2020, https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2020/3/24/21191184/coronavirus-social….
Lindsey Ellefson, “Fox News’ Brit Hume: It’s ‘Entirely Reasonable’ the Elderly Would Want to Die to Save Economy,” The Wrap, March 25, 2020, https://www.thewrap.com/brit-hume-entirely-reasonable-elderly-would-wan….
Seth J. Gillihan, “5 Bad Reasons Some People Still Aren't Social Distancing,” Psychology Today, March 25, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/think-act-be/202003/5-bad-reaso….
Hillary Hoffower, “COVIDIOT: The Latest Slang People Are Using to Describe Spring Breakers, Toilet-Paper Hoarders, and Politicians During the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Business Insider, March 26, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-a-covidiot-coronavirus-pandemic….
David Myers, Social Psychology, 11th ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2013).
Joe Pinsker, “The People Ignoring Social Distancing,” Atlantic, March 17, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2020/03/coronavirus-social-d….
Michael O. Schroeder, “The Physical and Mental Toll of Being Angry All the Time,” U.S. News, October 26, 2017, https://health.usnews.com/wellness/mind/articles/2017-10-26/the-physica….
Julia Shaw, “Why Some People Are Still Not Staying at Home,” Psychology Today, March 24, 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/making-evil/202003/why-some-peo….
Daniel R. Stalder, The Power of Context: How to Manage Our Bias and Improve Our Understanding of Others (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018).
Mark Warr, Companions in Crime: The Social Aspects of Criminal Conduct (New York: Cambridge, 2002).
Jennifer A. Whitson and Adam D. Galinsky, “Lacking Control Increases Illusory Pattern Perception,” Science 322 (2008): 115–17.