There is a high level of compliance with the variety of precautions people are being asked to take in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. People are staying at home, wearing masks in public, and generally trying to keep their distance from other people. And those precautions are working. The infection curve is starting to flatten in many countries around the world.
So, what is going on with those spring breakers who chose to ignore warnings, or the protesters who are now gathering in groups to demand an end to stay-at-home measures? Especially since ignoring them can lead to disastrous consequences.
There are three intersecting trends here that underlie the beliefs of a lot of COVID-19 skeptics. I should say up front that I’m not condoning people who are ignoring the social distancing guidelines. We are in the middle of a public health crisis that demands widespread cooperation. My point is that the way the skeptics are thinking can be understood. Understanding the basis of that behavior might also provide tools for helping to encourage skeptics to engage in social distancing practices despite their misgivings.
Lack of trust
About 15 years ago, there was an uptick in the number of people who were preparing for social upheaval. They were stockpiling food, medical supplies, and weapons. They were teaching themselves basic survival skills. There were websites and books devoted to helping people who were part of this “preppers” movement.
I ended up being interviewed by several publications about this movement. My perspective was that this movement was an extreme but understandable response to decreases in trust in the systems around us. We have distributed responsibility for so many things to specialists that few of us would be able to survive without the support of society. When trust in social institutions fades, some people decide that they have to learn to do (virtually) everything for themselves—just in case the social order breaks down.
There are still high levels of distrust in the social order. And that has led some people to mistrust experts in general. That lack of trust can lead people to question whether the recommendations made by those experts are truly so important. This was particularly true early in the pandemic, when the exponential growth curve was still pretty flat. At that point, the observable evidence was still consistent with there being a small number of people getting sick.
Ultimately, so much of what we know comes from what other people tell us rather than our own direct experience. Disregarding the information we get from sources we distrust makes sense—though choosing the sources of information incorrectly can have dangerous consequences.
A second factor affecting people’s actions is that the direct consequences of the pandemic are not front and center for many people. They may read about cases in the news, but they do not know anyone directly who has gotten sick or died from the virus.
When you are distant from things in time or space, then you think about them abstractly. That abstractness can make it easier to think that you personally are not likely to get the virus. It also makes the specific symptoms of the disease seem less severe. After all, thinking about a general concept such as disease doesn’t require you to think about what it would be like to be unable to catch your breath because your lungs are filled with fluid, and to be suffering from the pain of high fever.
But the precautions people have to take are specific. We feel the boredom and frustration of being socially isolated. We feel the pain of losing jobs and opportunities. We feel the discomfort of having to wear masks in public. We feel the disappointment of missing out on sporting events, concerts, and movies. Those consequences of social distancing may feel more real than the pandemic.
And so, when people do a cost-benefit analysis, they may decide that the costs of social distancing are not worth the benefits of decreasing what they already see is a small likelihood that they will get the disease and the small likelihood that even if they get it that it will have serious consequences for them.
On top of all that, all of us have many different goals. Avoiding illness and death are certainly important for most people. But we also want to engage with other people. We want to have fun. We want to succeed at our jobs.
At any given moment, some goals are more active than others. The active goals influence the actions you think are most appropriate to take. Those goals also influence how you interpret the information you encounter.
Research on motivated reasoning finds that when people have a goal that is important to them, they interpret information they encounter in a way that is consistent with that goal. They highlight information consistent with the outcome they want and discount information that is inconsistent with it.
Someone who wants to restart the economy will be more likely to downplay the severity of the pandemic in their region and to look for evidence that it is okay for businesses to open. It is natural, then, to want the world to be amenable to the outcomes you want.
Whenever you have an important decision you have to make, it is important to spend some time thinking about other goals you have. By contemplating those goals, you give at least temporary activation to them, which might change the way you evaluate some of the information you have encountered. That might be enough to temper some of your enthusiasm for taking a controversial path forward.