Separating panic from cautionary measures the behavioural psychology of the COVID-19 epidemic
As a psychological counsellor, I thought it might be of value to share my thoughts on the emergence of the collective fear and anxiety in the world so we can adequately differentiate between valid precautions and panic-driven behaviours. At the end of the article, I will discuss some relevant coping strategies. The reality is that infectious diseases, like car-accidents (a special area of practice of mine), is an everyday risk, and there are strategies we can employ to manage the fear around this threat.
To Understand Some Of The Panic-Buying And Hoarding Behaviours, We Have To Understand Social, Cognitive And Evolutionary Psychology Of Human Behaviour.
The novel coronavirus COVID-19, first emerged in Wuhan, China in late January. The world watched as China struggled to contain it. Other than rising stigma aimed towards Chinese people all over the world, and the sales of N95 respirators and masks going up, life in Canada more or less resumed as the way we knew it.
A few weeks later, the novel flu virus emerged in an alarming rate in Italy and Iran. By mid-March, pictures of cleared out shelves in the supermarkets started floating around social media. There were proclamations that people were “panic buying” and hoarding food supplies, anti-septic supplies, personal protective equipment and… toilet paper. I believe that it’s possible that in some cases, people are actually buying more than their household needs, but another probable factor is the actual fact that manufacturers and suppliers cannot meet the demands of the people at this point in time (and they are probably contending with whether it is more ethical to keep manufacturing and shipping running or whether this is contributing to the spread of the disease).
Canadians and Americans are so used to relative abundance, they find an empty aisle to be a interesting spectacle. They take a photo of it and share it with their friends because that’s what the smartphone generation does. Once these photos of empty supermarkets aisles were spread around, people who had not thought it was important or necessary to stock up their home, think that they too should stock up their home too, in case they are the ones who are left without.
What Are The Psychological Factors At Play Here?
One: Humans are neurologically wired to mimic others. We and other primates have these things called “mirror neurons” in our brains which light up in mirror of the emotions and behaviours of those around us. Mirror neurons allow us to reflect the emotion of the person we’re interacting with within fractions of a second — That’s milliseconds. In the case of this epidemic, we see others panic buying, so we panic buy. The term “monkey see, monkey do” is relevant to us.
As Berger describes in his 2017 book Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behaviour, other people’s behaviour has a huge influence on our judgements and opinions. Conformity and imitation are wired in behaviours that are tough to shake and observed in everyday interactions. Once one person at the table proclaims they won’t order dessert, most others will “join the crowd” and conform to groupthink.
We developed this unconscious desire to do as others are doing because it was a helpful survival mechanism. Like our primate cousins, we are pack animals by nature, thriving in community with others. When others mimic us, we tend to like and trust them more. Mimicry is a pro-social behaviour that makes you more attractive to others, and therefore more likely to find a mate. So the mimicry gene gets passed on. Those who did not have a desire to be liked by others were not increasing their chances of survival and reproduction, and their genes were not passed on.
Two: In addition to these social-psychological mechanisms at play, images can have a strong cognitive salience on our minds. We see a visual of an empty grocery store aisle and it “sticks” in our minds, as marketing gurus would say. We start sharing those images with others, we talk about “how scary this all is”.
Three: panic impairs our ability to problem solve and think clearly. With cognitive functioning impaired, we become all the more likely to follow the pack.
As a result, we see more and more pharmacies and grocery stores empty of food items and personal protective supplies. Even the more independent thinking types of individuals will start feeling a sense of “am I being left behind”? Businesses and stores that require face-to-face interaction start to close down in favour of the Social Distancing model, in an effort to flatten the exponential rate in which people are contracting the virus. As we watch a bustling city become a ghost town, it creates more of a wow-factor effect in the minds of people. People with anxious tendencies will talk about their fear of getting ill, which inspires further fear in others.
“End of the world”, apocalyptic-level chaos and behaviour as a result of a novel disease outbreak is not a new phenomena. It was a well-described human response during the AIDS epidemic (Strong, 1990). It may be sobering to know that as with previous epidemics, we observed trade and travel becoming disrupted, personal privacy and freedom invaded. People flip-flopped between regarding the outbreak as trivial and catastrophic, something that Ferlie and Pettigrew (1990) term as collective disorientation. As with the AIDS epidemic, we are observing a lack of a consistent way of containing and controlling the disease, with every country coming up with a plan of their own, creating more confusion in people. Feelings of anger and blame for one’s own government for not taking faster, better, more stringent action crop up. Groups believed to be common carriers of the disease were shunned and persecuted. In the AIDS case, it was those with particular kinds of sexual expression, and in the modern day epidemic, it is an ethnic group.
During a novel pandemic, to refrain from the allure of the psychosocial “epidemic of fear” (Strong, 1990), cognitive-behavioural coping strategies are important (Teasdale, Yardley & Michie, 2011).
Stay away from emotion-laden photos, videos and articles shared through social media by those without a reasonable amount of knowledge in the way infectious diseases work. Remember that news and media stations capitalize on your addiction to reading their articles and listening to their programs, which is largely based on fear and morbid curiosity.
Stay rational and stick close to unbiased facts from medical experts on government websites such as and their opinion on how COVID-19 is spread, the chances of contracting the disease, and the morbidity rate in your age group, which is low if you are not elderly or have immunocompromises. The BC Centre for Disease Control website has a well-written page on how health experts believe COVID-19 is spread and a wonderful Self-Assessment Tool to decide when to seek medical attention. What’s important here is to remember that COVID-19 is spread through visible water droplets transmitted through coughs and sneezes. Hence it is important to keep a 2 meter distance from people. Microscopic particles cannot travel through the air.
Also keep in mind that your body has incredible immuno-protective mechanisms which spontaneously spring to action when a foreign substance enters your body. Some percentage of the population will not become sick upon contracting the disease. Recent research provides even more hope for us during this pandemic. World-record holding Dutch influencer Wim Hof has been an integral part of a 2014 research study where he taught 10 participants to use his hyperventilating breathing technique to activate the fight-or-flight response, and release epinephren, to prevent infection from a intravenously injected bacterial endotoxin. It’s possible that we can will ourselves to increased immune functioning, it seems. Individuals that were trained in Wim Hof’s three-part method experienced fewer endotoxemia-associated flu-like symptoms, and a more swift normalization of fever and cortisol levels.
Social distancing, travel bans and quarantines in and of itself are not evidence that we do not have control over the situation and that it is time to panic. They are preventative practices which helps the healthcare workers manage the numbers who are affected and in need of medical attention. It is a action of courtesy to those who do not have functional capacity to fight the disease. It is a self and community preserving action.
As we observed with the AIDS epidemic, the distinctive social behaviours such as a the hoarding, xenophobic stigma towards certain groups of people, fear and confusion seen during large-scale epidemics are short term collapses of social and economic order in the grand scheme of things (Strong, 1990). While we await bio-medicine to assist us, let us separate the necessary hyper-vigilance needed to control the plague from the unhelpful neuroticism that the plague produces. As an additional sobering thought, since it’s first reported incident of COVID-19 on December 31st, Dr. Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the World Health Organization, predicts by the end of March, China will stabilize their report of new cases. There is hope for us to come out of this sooner, if we all commit to reduced contact.