Why Different People Think Differently About COVID-19

This post explains the different levels of reasoning and ego functioning.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

This post was co-authored by Lene Rachel Andersen

As demonstrated by this viral video of partying college students, when confronted with the coronavirus, some folks think only of themselves. In contrast, as this video with Jordan Hall demonstrates, other folks think in terms of the big picture and in complex interrelationships between systems at a macro-level of analysis. Why, when faced with a threat like the COVID-19 virus, do different people react and respond to it so differently?

One main reason is that there are different developmental levels of what we can call “ego functioning” (see here for a post on the ego and here for the elements of ego functioning). The ego is the part of the human mind that reflects on things and comes up with reasons and justifications for things.

There are lots of different models of how the ego develops. One good model comes from Lawrence Kohlberg, who was concerned with moral reasoning. He divided the levels of development into three broad categories of pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional, with two subcategories under each.

Understanding the level of development of a person’s ego is useful for understanding their fears, the reasons they give for what is OK behavior when confronted with those fears, and the kinds of justifications they offer for why their behavior is OK. Here is a description of the levels, with a focus on the coronavirus and how folks might think about the issue and respond to conventional wisdom, dictates from authorities and the kind of moral-ethical principles they use as guides.

Level 1 (pre-conventional)

In the pre-conventional phase of life, one’s fears typically regard one’s own suffering. The risk of personal loss of life, health or property is terrifying, and one’s reasoning is along the following lines:

This virus thing isn’t really my problem and nobody is going to tell me how to behave—but it is a problem if I get sick. I may comply with the new rules because if I don’t, it will have consequences that I don’t like, but why should I trust the government? Everybody is in it on his own, right?

1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)

If I don’t do as the government says, I will be punished, which just shows that the government cannot be trusted. I may get a fine, or they will lock me up, if I break the rules, so how can I avoid the punishment?

2. Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me?)

If I comply, I’ll reduce my risk of becoming sick.

Level 2 (conventional)

In the conventional phase of life, one has overcome most of the pre-conventional fears by becoming a team player in society and in various communities: I am safe because we are safe, and we are safe because we play by the same rules. One’s fears therefore regard exclusion from community and/or from society, and one’s reasoning is along the following lines: Good people do not put others in danger, they make sure that family and community are safe, and they put country above self. I’d feel awful if people saw me breaking the rules or if I put others at risk.

3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms and the good boy/girl attitude)

Wonder what others are doing? Am I quarantining myself in the right way, or am I making any mistakes? What does my rabbi/priest/pastor/imam say? What would Jesus do? Has anybody asked Oprah or Dr. Phil?

4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)

When your country is under threat, you don’t ask questions! Good people do as the police say; you have a moral duty to do what is right.

Level 3 (post-conventional)

In the post-conventional phase of life, one has overcome the previous fears by finding moral authority within oneself. One knows, deep down in one’s soul, what is morally right or wrong, even though others might disagree; one cares about self, others, and society as a whole, but is no longer afraid of social isolation. One’s fears regard the overall system, the social contract, the principles behind society, and the wellbeing of society as a whole.

One’s reasoning will be along the following lines: We should strive to be that which is virtuous, even as we sometimes fail to live up to that goal. Everybody needs to take personal responsibility and follow the best principles, not because somebody says so but because it is the right thing to do.  

5. Social contract orientation (Principled conscience)

If we all play by the rules, things will run smoothly and we will all be safe. If the rules turn out to be insufficient, I’ll tell the authorities and I’ll act accordingly; whatever happens, I will stay alert and do my best.

6. Universal ethical principles

Sometimes you have to break the rules in order to live up to the intentions and principles behind the rules; you have to be able to think for yourself and ask critical questions, particularly in unfamiliar situations when all that we have are the principles that should always guide us.

This list helps you identify where people’s ego functioning might be as they justify how to act. This might be useful in helping us understand each others’ fears and reasoning processes, which may help us better navigate conflicts and empathize where people are coming from.