5 Bad Reasons Some People Still Aren't Social Distancing

These thinking errors are contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Posted Mar 25, 2020

G. Lombardo/Adobe Stock
Source: G. Lombardo/Adobe Stock

As the new coronavirus spreads throughout the world, public health officials have issued strong warnings about the danger we face. For example, Dr. Ezekiel J. Emanuel recently warned that the death toll in the United States could be as high as 2.2 million.

But the degree of illness and death from this global pandemic depends largely on how committed we are to slowing its spread. One of the most powerful tools available to us is limiting contact between those who have it and those who don’t—in other words, social distancing. According to Emanuel, these measures could prevent as many as 2 million deaths.

Many of us have watched in disbelief and horror as others have defied experts’ urging to social distance. We might wonder what could possibly motivate people to act in ways that raise the risk not only for themselves but for the most vulnerable among us. “What are they thinking?” we might ask in disbelief.

That is exactly the right question. Once we know what a person is thinking, their behavior generally makes sense. People do things for reasons, and actions follow from beliefs. But when the behavior is clearly misguided or foolish, something has clearly gone wrong in the thought process. In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) we call these types of thoughts “thinking errors.”

The following five types of thinking errors can lead a person not to practice social distancing. (It should go without saying that these errors don't apply to those who remain in public because of their jobs, like our heroic nurses, doctors, postal workers, and grocery workers. I am filled with gratitude for all of you.) 

Overgeneralizing

When we overgeneralize, we assume that a past experience applies to every situation. Based on this logic, the COVID-19 crisis can’t be any worse than previous outbreaks like SARS and H1N1. But past experience is only as useful as it is relevant, and generalizing from other viruses ignores the unique features of this coronavirus—like the ease of transmission and the ability for asymptomatic people to spread it. The better approach would be to bring a “beginner’s mind,” as though it’s the first time we’ve faced this particular disease, which in fact it is.

Minimizing

Many beliefs about the coronavirus downplay the seriousness of the crisis:

  • “It’s basically like the flu.” This one gets repeated a lot, though it’s clearly false—for example, the mortality rate for coronavirus appears to be much higher.
  • "It only affects old people.” This one is doubly perplexing. First, it’s not true; the young are also at risk. But even if it were true, why should we take comfort in that? Aren’t the most vulnerable among us worth protecting, even at some inconvenience to ourselves?
  • “80% of people have mild symptoms.” It’s true that not everyone who contracts the coronavirus will end up on a ventilator. However, even a case that’s classified as “mild” can still be extremely unpleasant. You might think of a mild case of COVID-19 as being like an “easy marathon”—it’s still not a nice experience.

Emotional Reasoning

Our emotions can give us clues about what’s true, but they’re very unreliable. For example, we might assume something bad is going to happen because we feel afraid, but in reality it was a false alarm.

A person might make the reverse inference for COVID-19, believing that “it can’t be a big deal because I’m not worried about it.” But as the saying goes, “Reality doesn’t care about your feelings,” and being unafraid doesn’t change the facts about this virus.   

Fortune Telling

Some people seem to believe they can see into the future (perhaps based on overgeneralizing from the past) and are sure this will end up being much ado about nothing. I’ve heard people cite their experience in previous outbreaks, confident that they know what’s going to happen this time around.

These kinds of prophecies can be especially appealing when they offer reassurance that everything will be okay (see emotional reasoning). However, none of us has a crystal ball. We have to rely on the predictions of people who know a lot more than we do about this virus and how best to contain it.

Entitlement

Finally, the belief that “I’m entitled to do what I want” can also lead one to not practice social distancing. Some seem to argue that it’s un-American to practice social distancing, though coming together to defeat a common enemy seems pretty patriotic. Or a person might believe that not social distancing is like taking off their seat belt—a personal choice that only affects them. But it’s more like taking off your seat belt and the seat belts of those most at risk—like your grandparents, for example.

If you recognize any of these beliefs in yourself, start to question the evidence for them: What data support your belief? Is there anything you might have ignored? Is it worth updating your belief and changing your behavior, based on a fuller awareness of the situation?

If you do realize you’ve made thinking errors, it doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person. (That would be another type of thinking error.) It just means you’re human. It’s a truly human gift to be able to question what our minds tell us, and change our beliefs accordingly. Align your beliefs with the facts as best as we know them, and let truth guide your actions.

References

Gillihan, S. J. (2018). Cognitive behavioral therapy made simple. Emeryville, CA: Althea Press.