One of the most frustrating aspects of the coronavirus outbreak is that fewer people would be dead now had we taken the pandemic seriously a month ago.
Instead, as the weather turned nice and scientists were calling for self-quarantines, Americans spilled onto bar patios, beaches and boarded flights for vacations. Some people insisted on commuting to work, and in New York, the virus’ biggest U.S. playground, people are still going to speakeasies and hosting potlucks. Even the president spent weeks insisting the virus would disappear shortly and that America would go back to business as usual.
Look outside your window right now or go to a park, and you’ll see that many people still aren’t staying the recommended six feet apart. While it’s infuriating to know that people are still congregating on their stoops for neighborhood happy hours while elsewhere, dead bodies are being loaded onto refrigerated trucks, this behavior is also human nature.
So why were Americans so slow to grasp the scale of this outbreak? We talked to Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, about the science behind this kind of denial.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
HuffPost: You recently published a perfectly timed book called “The Psychology of Pandemics” that looks at how people respond to outbreaks. Were you surprised by the fact that Americans didn’t really begin to socially isolate until the coronavirus had already killed hundreds of people?
Steven Taylor: No, I wasn’t surprised at all. Many people have what’s called an unrealistic optimism bias. It’s a tendency to underplay threats and to see yourself as being more impervious than the average person. To many people, the coronavirus seemed like a disease that was in another country. People were not seeing it in their communities. People were being reactive rather than proactive, wanting it to be overblown, wanting things to be OK.
People’s reactions boil down to their worldviews. How dangerous do you think the world is? How much control do you think you have in your life? How much do you think something comes from foreigners versus in your own community?
Is there some kind of advantage to having an optimism bias, or being in denial about big crises?
People want to be in control of things. This bias allows people to go about their daily lives without experiencing anxiety. It gets us away from being consumed with the existential dread of fearing for our lives. When you run experiments, the people who predict things most accurately under some circumstances are mildly depressed. It’s called depressive realism.
Denial can be adaptive in the face of unavoidable, uncontrollable threats to one’s existence. However, denial also comes with obvious shortcomings. If you believe that you’re impervious to COVID-19 and you go out and party on the beach, you’re going to actively contribute to the spread of infection. It can have catastrophic consequences.
The idea that we’ll let the economy go on, this virus will burn itself out and we’ll carry on as before could lead to countless deaths.
It seems like many people only begin to take the coronavirus seriously when they know someone who is infected. Why is that?
I encountered a really good example of this recently. A guy I know had been downplaying the whole thing. He wasn’t social distancing or doing anything like that. But then a friend of his suddenly died in New York, and his optimism bias was shattered. The crisis suddenly got brought home to him in a very vivid, personal way that the statistics or news reports couldn’t do. That changed his behavior a lot.
Humans aren’t very good at predicting or assessing risk. We tend to look to our emotional reactions to judge how likely a threat is. People aren’t going to social distance if they see the virus as not their problem. But when they suddenly realize, “Oh, I’m at risk for giving the disease to my grandmother who could die from that” can bring it home for them.
The idea that we’ll let the economy go on, this virus will burn itself out and we’ll carry on as before could lead to countless deaths. Steven Taylor, University of British Columbia
Is there any evolutionary explanation for this instinct?
People are tribalistic, given the way we evolved as a species. We care for our in-group. From an evolutionary perspective, it was strangers who brought in diseases or threats to our communities. We’re seeing an increase in altruism and solidarity [because of the virus], but many of these people pulling together are highly xenophobic.
People join together in their community to look after one another. And yet they’re closing down borders. In the context of every pandemic outbreak, there’s always an upsurge in xenophobia and racism. I think that’s one of the big lessons we’ve not learned. I guess, partly, we have to look to our leaders. If a leader takes a position that we have got to blame someone for this, then that’s going to incite racism.
Trump has called COVID-19 the ‘Chinese Virus’ and flip-flopped on how seriously Americans should take the outbreak. How much does a president’s messaging influence people’s actions?
It’s hugely important. People pick up cues about how to behave or how to feel from their leaders. If a politician appears confused or inconsistent or contradictory in their behavior, that’s going to add to people’s anxieties. It can make the anxious people more anxious and it can cause the overall optimistic people to say, “Well, even he doesn’t know, so I don’t need to worry about it.”
If you don’t trust your government, that can have disastrous consequences. During the Ebola outbreak in Liberia, the people who were not socially distancing were the ones who didn’t trust the government’s social guidelines.
Trump has a vested interest in denying the scale of this pandemic: He wants the economy to go back to normal so he can get reelected. Is this same kind of denial happening on an individual level?
We have been asking people “Why are you afraid of COVID-19? What are you afraid of?” Many people are afraid of the economic fallout, that they’ll lose their jobs, their mortgages, houses and so forth. So, faced with that fear, there’s almost a psychological incentive for them to not feel the threat because that allows them to overcome or avoid that anxiety.
So yes, people have strong, personal incentives for denial, and it’s easy to do that when you don’t have your neighbor coughing in their apartment next door from COVID-19. It’s easier to do when it’s just limited to stuff you can see on the computer screen or TV.
If statistics don’t resonate with people, how do we convince those who are still gathering in groups to take the virus seriously?
It’s helpful to get people to understand how it’s in their own self-interest to adopt a particular practice. So not actually tampering with their worldview, but altering their behavior. For example, my team’s surveys so far show that roughly 20% of people don’t intend to get the coronavirus vaccination [once it exists]. So, lead those people to understand they are being heroes for their own communities and keeping their grandparents alive by getting vaccinated.
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