The Psychology Behind Our Reactions to Coronavirus

April 19, 2020

 

Our lives have been turned upside-down. We were all blissfully ignorant to the implications associated with global pandemic diseases at the start of this new year; back when our Instagram feeds were full of memes and free of safety procedures, and zoom was just an ordinary word and not the preferred platform for socializing. Now, however, the word “coronavirus” is thrown around casually in almost every conversation. Its name alone carries an intense feeling of urgency. Gloves and masks are the newest trend in the world of fashion. Six feet is the minimum distance we keep from others. Washing hands is no longer considered basic hygiene but now an essential exercise. 

 

While we are probably well-versed on the physical effects of COVID-19, we might not be as familiar with the behind-the-scenes psychology affecting our every move. Take, for example, grocery shopping. The typically mundane task of grocery shopping has now become a great ordeal with barren supermarket aisles and limitations on quantity of purchases. Before entering a store, we are greeted by long lines to ensure that the number of people within the building remains low to minimize the risk of infection. And it doesn't get much better once inside: every surface is a possible vector for coronavirus and must be treated as such, tape lines on the floor at check-out indicate the mandatory six-feet distance, and aisles are empty to a degree I'd only ever before witnessed in apocalyptic-esque movies.

 

This display of "panic buying" is an act of hoarding that occurs during crises due to a perceived feeling of scarcity. While it is common to hoard during normal times, the degree we are experiencing now is astronomically high. Panic buying is a social behavior, meaning that many people will over-exaggerate the severity of the situation simply because others are acting in a similar manner. The feelings of anxiety, uncertainty and an overall lack of control are all major contributing factors to this grim atmosphere and manifest in the physical symptom of hoarding. Anxiety and fear are natural reactions to the situation at hand, an evolutionary response fueled by our unconscious minds in an effort to protect ourselves against danger. We feel better if we think that we are prepared for the worst-case scenario, but it's absolutely essential to understand the consequences of overconsumption and to assess the detrimental effects associated with our actions. It's easy to give in to the fear and purchase a lifetime supply of toilet paper to ease your own anxieties. It's not so easy to take a step back and place everything within the realm of relativity, but understanding the psychological reasoning behind why we feel this way is a great first step.

 

Another less common but more severe psychological effect we are noticing is the rise of racism. Instances of racist attacks in the United States have increased rapidly since coronavirus became a prevalent issue. Some research has indicated that there have been over 1,000 cases of Asian-American racism in one month alone, though the number has most likely increased since then. Many people have adversely started referring to this disease as “China-virus” and other heinous names. Much of the racism Asian-Americans are experiencing is non-threatening, such as students in classrooms refusing to collaborate with other students of Asian descent or workers declining to assist customers with Asian heritage, and many more similar examples. Yet other acts of atypical social behavior have also ensued, including, but not limited to, violent attacks and unwarranted cursing. This stream of racism is an uncommon phenomenon, no doubt a direct consequence of the fact that coronavirus originated in China. Surely we understand that coronavirus is not an ethnic disease, nor does its transmittance depend on the ethnicity of the vector, so why have so many people reacted with such hate?

 

Though it is socially frowned upon, there is a reason behind our madness: something known as the behavioral immune system conditions us to act the way we do. Psychology affects physiology, especially in terms of immune function, and now new information is emerging about how psychology can be physiologically preventative. The behavioral immune system (BIS), a concept popularized by psychologist Mark Schaller, is an evolutionary psychological development that works in tandem with our other immune function as a form of prevention developed as aversion to infectious diseases. Simple occurrences, like experiencing disgust or witnessing a sick individual, increase immune responses as an easy way to reduce risk of infection—this is our bodies’ initial defense against anything that may harm us and has been refined through generations. We are innately predisposed to be fearful of what is harmful, even if it may not be rational in context of today’s environment. Think about issues like arachnophobia and acrophobia: spiders and heights. They are not a big cause for concern in the contemporary world, but we still fear them because we are products of evolution and natural selection. BIS is a major underlying factor in xenophobia, whose appearance in society is heightened by the coronavirus scare. More information about BIS and its effects have still yet to be uncovered, but what we know for certain is that these processes are present in normal, everyday life and are exaggerated in response to scare of infection, which offers an explanation as to why our reactions to COVID-19 seem so unnecessarily extreme. As a species, we respond to fear. That being said, if we can understand the psychology behind the reasons prompting us to act so rashly, we can hopefully make a more concentrated effort to respond appropriately during this unprecedented situation. Evolution has worked hard to bring us to where we are now, but we have only prevailed due to the use of our cognitive senses. We shouldn’t rely on instincts to lead us through a scary situation. These are trying times, but we are a resilient bunch, and it’s our job as good, moral citizens to keep clear heads and persevere.

 

References:

  • https://psychcentral.com/blog/panic-buying-the-psychology-of-hoarding-toilet-paper-beans-soup/ 

  • http://www.spsp.org/news-center/blog/light-psychology-of-coronavirus 

  • https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation

  • https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-behavioral-immune-system/

  • https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus#tab=tab_1

  • https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html

  • https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01004/full

  • https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/202003/7-reasons-panic-buying-behavior

  • https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/asian-americans-report-nearly-500-racist-acts-over-last-week-n1169821

 

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