033 The Psychology of COVID-19

Why do people, even intelligent, well-balanced throw themselves into fear and panic? This is similar to the phenomenon of managers being busy in an office and running around telling everyone how stressed and busy they are. It is a reactive lifestyle, but humans are naturally a reactive species. Reacting is safe, and much easier than being proactive. Not making decisions proactively saves you from having to predict what might happen; instead, you wait for something to happen and then adjust accordingly. 

"Relating to the COVID-19 outbreak, we simply do not know!"

Now, Coronavirus or COVID-19: the core of the problem is that we do not know, and as humans we fear what we do not know. Fear of the unknown has kept us alive for thousands of years. Relating to the COVID-19 outbreak, we simply do not know. Due to the prevalence of mis-reporting by authoritarian regimes (China, the origin of the outbreak is notorious for censuring domestic and international news outlets), or the fact that up to 80% of the population are asymptomatic, or the underestimation by developed countries such as the US and members of the EU has left a void.

Conspiracy theories fill the void and can be explained by what in psychology is called teleologic bias, or the desire to believe that everything happens for some greater purpose. No one, regardless of level of education, is immune to these feelings. So reading and spreading doubtful information is going to happen when the authorities have no idea what they are talking about. You could say that this COVID-19 outbreak panic is a way for people to cope with something they know nothing about. 

"We can take for granted that our more basic needs will be met!"

There is a psychologist named Abraham Maslow who coined the term “Hierarchy of Needs.” In the West and other developed countries, we can take for granted that our more basic needs will be met. Few of us have to really worry about food, clothing, or shelter, and even next-level worries, such as physical safety and security. Now suddenly some of these basics are under threat. Suddenly panic and hopelessness is part of every day life for many other countries.

The act of hoarding buying up supplies when this all began is a method of coping psychologically. People feel safer when they took steps, even though hoarding all those supplies will not prevent you from catching a virus. Under crisis situations, people typically tend to rally around one another (this boosts our chances of survival). However, you can disrupt that if you deprive people of the opportunity to act in a coordinated way. If there are no trusted sources of information, such as when the authorities continually change their stories, then you get much less coordinated information.

"People tend to rally around one another!"

A final thought: in the social psychology the need to belong, or belongingness, is the human emotional need to affiliate with and be accepted by members of a group. What bigger group can you be in than the whole world, fighting an illness?

Stay in lead!