The Psychology of Pandemic Denial

Why do some people reject the science of public health?

Posted Mar 24, 2020

I’ve noticed that there are three kinds of deniers of a scientifically sound public health response to the coronavirus pandemic: a certain kind of political partisan, those who are medically uninformed, and those with a tendency to conspiracy theories. And there’s overlap between the three categories.

As I experienced with my last blog post, where I made the highly political statement that Pascal was right when he said that the miseries of people stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room, some political partisans of the current president are very angry. They’re mad because they worry not only about the pandemic but about its harmful economic consequences which damage the reelection chances of the incumbent.

In other countries, political partisans defend other incumbents, as they worry about the social risks of pubic anger against governments: China repressed the first doctors who warned about the pandemic; Iran held national elections at the start of the pandemic; Italy delayed enforcement of social distancing; England initially pretended it would be fine to let the infection run ravage to get herd immunity. America’s defenders of the current regime aren’t alone. Pandemics are bad politics if rulers engage in denial and later face an unhappy populace.

In all these cases, though, governments turned around and took the measures that are needed to slow down the pandemic. Even here in the US, the president did the right thing in the end, listening to his scientific advisors and not his political ones, and moved to warn the nation to follow public health needs. Even so, some of his followers can’t let go of the initial denial. And the great leader himself is now wavering. 

The second group comprises the medically uninformed. These fall into two subgroups: young people, generally in their late teens or twenties, and science-skeptics. The young have received adequate criticism, though sometimes with limited impact. These are the folks who take the $80 flights to Florida for the weekend, unworried about airplane risks of infection, and crowd together on beaches and in bars. As is typical with young persons, where reasoning fails, commands must follow. Mayors and governors had to close beaches and bars, reminding the youth that they could party in later times. 

The science-skeptics tend to be older, in their thirties or later, and are equally represented among liberals and conservatives, though for different reasons. They each pick and choose what kind of science they like: The left dislikes vaccines, the right dislikes global warming. They can agree on one thing: Their own views are more valid than science—pandemics be damned. They each refuse to accept that the verdicts of science are unrelated to what they like. As the immortal 30-year-old Katie Williams of Las Vegas tweeted after going to a restaurant in response to an exhortation by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to stay home: "...this is America. And I"ll do what I want." We hold these truths to be self-evident—that I am more important than science.  

Finally, there are the conspiracy theorists. How can something terrible just happen? There must be a deeper reason. So it was with the assassinations of Kennedy and King, 9/11, school shootings. The pandemic started in China. Initially, some wanted to blame China; in hard-hit Iran, some blame the US; in the US, some Trump supporters blame his opponents. It’s human nature to rationalize, especially in the face of random events, even if the reasons given are false.  

The problem with pandemic denial is that it only takes a minority to refuse to follow public health infection control to undermine the whole thing. That’s a major reason why control of this pandemic has faltered in Europe and the Middle East compared to China and the Far East. If the US is to avoid becoming like Italy, which the incidence curves find so far, all Americans, not some or even most of them, have to get out of denial. The likelihood of such rationality is low though. 

Pascal’s warning is a fact of human psychology: People can’t sit in a room, so they come up with reasons why they shouldn’t. In such circumstances, a wise government (see: Japan, Singapore) would replace exhortation with enforcement.