How Egoicism Is Making the Pandemic Worse

Why do some people resist doing things to stem the spread of the virus?

Posted May 19, 2020

As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people are taking action to help their neighbors and communities. Health care providers and first responders come most quickly to mind, but many other people are donating their time and money to help those affected by the pandemic, and hundreds of millions of others have changed their lives to limit the spread of the virus, even when doing so is inconvenient for them personally. The pandemic has brought out the best in many, many people.

But we have also seen many examples of people who not only don’t seem to be contributing to the common good but, in fact, are doing things that are directly helping the virus to infect — and perhaps kill — their fellow citizens. We see people who refuse to wear masks (and who even become violent when asked to do so), people who make no effort to maintain a safe distance from others, and people who insist on being allowed to congregate in large groups.  

If these kinds of precautions required a great deal of time, effort, or money, we could understand why people might resist them. But these actions involve minimal effort and inconvenience, with a rather large potential to limit infection, death, and the economic consequences of the disease. Imagine what the course of the outbreak would have been like if no one, anywhere, had worn masks, socially distanced, or refrained from congregating in large groups. The outcome is unimaginable. 

So what gives? Why might people refuse to do their part in stemming the spread of COVID-19?

In one sense, the fact that people want to be allowed to do whatever they want is not at all surprising. Human beings — indeed all animals — are programmed to look out for their own needs and desires first. Yet we can not possibly function in society if everyone always does what they want with no regard for other people. Civilized life requires people to consider other people’s interests and well-being alongside their own. It’s a constant balancing act and, much of the time, people do a reasonably good job of pursuing their own goals in ways that don’t unnecessarily inconvenience, harm, or upset others. It’s a cornerstone of human society.

But failing to take minimal precautions to limit the spread COVID-19 — or worse, deliberately resisting such efforts — reflects a high level of egoic self-preoccupation, selfishness, and lack of concern for other people. People who refuse to behave in easy, low-cost ways in order to minimize the number of people who might become infected are unwilling to help in a collective effort to reduce suffering, end the pandemic, and return society to some sense of normalcy simply because they don't want to. 

To examine the question of why some people refuse to take steps to fight coronavirus, let's turn the question around and ask, "What does it take, at minimum, for someone to behave in ways that protect themselves and other people from being infected with COVID-19?" In order for people to take such precautions, four things are needed. Those who refuse to take precautions must be tripping over one or more of these four hurdles.    

By Shanluan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0
Source: By Shanluan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Empathy. Modifying one’s behavior out a concern for other people’s well-being obviously requires that a person is aware of and sensitive to others’ perspectives and needs. But people who are low in empathy — the ability to recognize, understand, and share others' thoughts and feelings — are not fully attuned to other people's needs or feelings. For that reason, people low in empathy tend to be indifferent to other’s problems, low in compassion, more selfish, and less likely to behave in helpful, prosocial ways.  

Reactance. None of us like to be told what to do. Psychological reactance is a common response when we perceive that our freedom to behave in a particular way is threatened. Reactance is the motivation to restore our behavioral freedom, often accompanied by emotional distress, anxiety, or anger.

When people feel coerced to behave in a certain way, they often react against the pressure, sometimes by doing the opposite of what they were told to do. (This is the basis of the strategy of “reverse psychology” in which we try to get people to do something by telling them not to do it.) Although reactance is a natural and sometimes beneficial reaction, it’s obviously dysfunctional to refuse to perform a potentially beneficial behavior simply because we were told that we should.  

Self-presentation. Reactions to health risks sometimes involve a self-presentational component because people, particularly men, may worry that they will be perceived as anxious or overly cautious if they take steps to protect themselves against some danger. So they sometimes don’t take reasonable precautions when doing risky things because they don’t want to look anxious (or, for men, insufficiently masculine).

So people may injure themselves, contract diseases, or experience fatal accidents because they didn’t take adequate precautions that might make them look weak or neurotic. I had such thoughts recently myself, walking into an automotive supply store in which the only other customers wearing masks were women. What would all these people think of the wussy guy in a mask?

Allocentric orientation. People with an allocentric orientation see themselves as connected to other people, interdependent, and group-focused. As a result, they have a communal perspective that leads them to look out for the good of the group, follow beneficial social norms (because they recognize that norms exist to help people get along), and sometimes subordinate their personal goals to those of other people. But research shows that people who score lower in allocentrism are less likely to take other people’s concerns into account, go out of their way to help others, or treat other people fairly.  

Putting these four considerations together, people who resist taking precautions to protect other people may: (1) have insufficient empathy, (2) experience psychological reactance that induces oppositional behavior, (3) worry about how taking protective actions might lead other people to perceive them, and/or (4) fail to grasp — in an allocentric, communal sort of way — that we really are all in this together.