The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the course of our lives. No one imagined it was going to affect us not just physiologically but psychologically as well. Thanks to science for rolling out the vaccines (and not just ‘a’ vaccine) for emergency usage during these unprecedented times. Until vaccines started coming out, scientists kept emphasizing upon following the NPI (non pharmaceutical interventions) which include wearing masks, keeping at least 2 metres of distance between one another and washing hands with soap (that contains at least 60% alcohol) or sanitizing hands with a hand sanitizer. What’s interesting is that we must follow all the NPIs even if we are vaccinated because no vaccine can save us 100% from contracting the virus again.
An important question pops up: why it is so difficult for some people to wear a mask properly and follow social distancing? Such people rebel against wearing a mask and believe wearing one comes down to their individual choice. The role of gender, income and political affiliation is also considered to be playing a role. While an individual choice, gender, political affiliation and income are the answers, the problem is that they are easy answers. Psychology believes there is another way to understand why changing behaviours associated with health is complicated.
One of the reasons is the ‘theory of psychological reactance’. When people are asked to follow health related advices they start believing their freedom is being compromised. They think their individual choice is under threat. As a result, some negative emotions start piling up and people start acting against the persuasive messages and public health related advices. Not complying to what is being asked of us is just another way of filling a void of so-called ‘freedom taken away’. Behaviours such as tobacco use, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, poor eating habits, etc. are preventable but not always easy to be given up through campaigns because of the psychological reactance. The same thing is happening during the COVID-19 situation. People look at wearing masks and following social distancing as an external stimulus meant for snatching away their sense of freedom to choose. This gives rise to negative emotions including anger and finally there is prevalence of contradictory behaviours. A Gallup survey conducted in early April found that 44% of US adults say they ‘always’ wear a mask when they go outside their homes, 28% say they wear ‘very often’, 11% say they wear ‘sometimes’ while
4% and 14% say they wear ‘rarely’ and ‘never’ respectively. Not even half of the population wearing masks!! Going against the guidelines helps people restore their autonomy. However, such non-complying behaviours are only contributing towards worsening the situation.
In behavioural psychology, there is a concept called ‘risk perception’ and it is most certainly another cause why people don’t wear masks and follow social distancing. Risk perception is an individual’s perceived susceptibility towards a threat. When people have poor risk perception their behaviours are less likely to conform to advices and health related messages. Risk expert David Ropeik has identified 14 factors that contribute to risk perception. These factors are: trust, origin, control, nature, scope, awareness, imagination, dread, age affected, uncertainty, familiarity, specificity, personal impact and fun factor. All the factors take an active part in building a perception among people towards danger/risk. University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic says, “You have an experience and the experience is benign. It feels okay and comfortable. It’s familiar. Then you do it again. If you don’t see anything immediately bad happening, your concerns get deconditioned.” This is exactly the case. Initially, when people didn’t see any bad thing happening to them due to COVID-19 they stopped feeling concerned and became careless. Also, we humans have a tendency to grow numb to mounting number of deaths, according to University of Washington professor Ann Bostrom.
Another important question that needs to be addressed is how to persuade people to follow the non-pharmaceutical interventions. Psychology has something to offer. While it is not easy to change any behaviour at a mass scale, one strategy might work: consensus portrayal. If someone is not wearing a mask or following social distancing then seeing others following the guidelines will make him/her to do the same. It’s a human tendency to adopt a behaviour when it is being shared by others as well. Politicians, celebrities and other famous personalities all over the world can themselves follow the rules strictly so that general population has someone to look up to and do the same thing.
We cannot afford to become reckless. It’s high time to put our faith in science and act as responsible citizens.
The author of above article is Sumbul Syed who is a writer and a psychology student.