Covid-19 pandemic has had all of us on our toes, and boggled our mind in one way or the other. Since the onset of the pandemic one question has been bothering me a lot: Why are people behaving irrationally during the pandemic? All of us witnessed the aberrant behaviour in one form or the other. I felt that it had some deep roots in psychology because conventional reasoning didn’t seem to provide a holistic answer. In the pursuit of seeking answers, I started digging into the behavioural literature when I came across a study related to automaticity of social behaviour, conducted by three social-psychology researchers -- John A. Baragh, Mark Chen, and Lara Burrows-- at New York University, in 1996.
They conducted an interesting experiment which was presented to the participants as a test of language proficiency. The participants were asked to complete a scrambled-sentence task which involved rearranging the order of words to form meaningful sentences, and then go to another laboratory for participating in the apparently second task. For one group of the participants, the task was based on words related to ‘angry’ stereotype e.g. rude, disturb, intrude, interrupt, etc. The second group was exposed to the ‘polite’ stereotype e.g. patiently, polite, respect, appreciate, etc., and for the third group, the words were neutral.
The real purpose of the experiment was not to test their language proficiency but the effect of the constructs ‘angry’, and ‘polite’ on their behaviour, reflected by whether they interrupted the conversation between the second experimenter (stationed in another laboratory) and his confederate or not. The experimenter was supposed to deliberately ignore the incoming participants for some time or till they interrupted (whichever was earlier). Not interrupting a conversation is a stereotype associated with polite behavior. Interestingly, the percentage of participants who interrupted the experimenter was highest among the group who worked with the set of words belonging to construct ‘angry’ while it was least, and significantly different, for those primed with the construct ‘polite’.
A take away from this study is that the specific stereotype-related behaviours can get elicited in humans if they are primed with the features associated with that stereotype, even if they do not belong to that group. There have been several such studies which ascertain the elicitation of primed behaviour. If we analyze the (irrational) behaviour of the people in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in the light of the above study, interesting insights emerge.
Priming seems to have elicited the irrational behaviour of people. There have been numerous instances where people simply ran away once they were recommended a quarantine or self-isolation, or when they were tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Some people tried hiding their symptoms; not surprising, there have been hundreds of memes, doing rounds on social media, related to people trying not to cough. There have been instances of people trying to break away from quarantine centres, some people are still doing it. People even resorted to the use of antipyretics to escape screening at airports while others, allegedly, used back-channel measures to escape on-arrival mandatory self-isolation. Some people were accused of hiding their travel history. This is criminal behaviour by people who are otherwise respectable and sensible citizens. This irresponsible stereotype could possibly be a result of priming caused by the extensive use of the words like “Suspect”/ “Suspected” with COVID-19 infected people (in a similar way the students in the psychology study were primed by ‘angry’ words), by the media and people alike. Don’t we associate the words like “suspected” with criminals? Otherwise, why would people have behaved that way?
The irrational behaviour gets compounded by the social stigmatization of the people infected by this virus. We did not even spare the doctors; several instances of treating them as lesser humans provide enough evidence. It is also possible that suicides by a few COVID-19 infected people, and deaths of a few by cardiac arrests could be a result of this unwanted feeling. Why would someone ensure their death by committing a suicide when the odds of them surviving the COVID-19 infection are more in their favour? The criminalization of the patients has also bolstered the irrational behaviour. Thus, should not have called vulnerable COVID-19 people as suspects and instead called them potential/doubtful COVID-19 patients or something similar. The use of the word ‘patient’ would prime them to the behaviour expected of patients i.e. stay indoors, don’t spread the disease, take care of yourself, seek medical advice, trust your doctor, and have faith that you will get recovered. Further, we should similarly not associate the term ‘police’ with potential corona patients while reporting, even if the administration seeks their help to bring the potential patients to appropriate centres/hospitals; the term police may bring to mind bamboo-sticks and prisons, invoking fleeing behaviour among these distressed (potential) COVID-19 patients. Sympathy and encouragement, not bashing and name-calling, will help flatten the curve and fight the pandemic.
This was one aspect of the story. The other is related to the perception of people about the pandemic, about the response of the administration, and about themselves (as a society) in dealing with the pandemic. Perception is usually swayed by the information we are subjected to.
Fake news has exacerbated the situation. A lot of fake news is circulating regarding the COVID-19, especially related to its dreadness and cure. Unfortunately, we find sensationalism appealing. Fake news regarding overnight magical cures cost humanity hundreds of lives. For example, over hundred people succumbed to alcohol (methanol) poisoning in Iran. Some people fell ill by consuming magical drinks in India. This creates more panic, and panic is an ideal condition for establishment of new behaviour, especially irrational behaviour. We need to develop a belief that testing positive for COVID-19 does not necessarily mean choking and death. It doesn’t mean the end of the world. This will subdue the irrational tendencies.
On the other hand, fake news related to easy home-based cures like drinking tea, drinking warm water, etc. as a perfect cure to COVID-19, makes us undermine the severity of the problem. As a consequence, we may not follow the protocols (e.g. physical distancing), and weigh the trade-off between what harm we can do to society and the personal benefit, in our favour (selfish-tendencies). We should also drop the ‘We won’t get infected’ attitude, and stop exaggerating and boasting about our immunity levels; we are not Chuck Norris! Unfortunately, people still try to venture out unnecessarily even after lockdown. This irrational behaviour makes us more susceptible and increases the transmission rate of the virus.
One plausible solution to the problem of fake news is the overload of verified news so that the effect of fake news subsides drastically, and we are grounded in reality. We need to make people aware, educate them and create conditions that prevent irrational tendencies. More and more awareness should be created at all levels, including ‘mohalla’ wise announcements to bust all the myths related to the pandemic. Mohalla announcements can be more effective; it helps us relate better to the pandemic, rather than ward off the news as something happening in a distant land; people still venture out unnecessarily in spite of the lockdown.
Now bringing forth the perception regarding the response of administration; it is critical. We know that our health infrastructure, if not in shambles, is not state-of-art either. As a result, there is still a lot of distress among people that if they are shifted to isolation centres, it may worsen their condition (quarantine centres are possibly thought of as ‘no less harsh than jails’) Reports about people jumbled together in quarantine centres with pathetic facilities, at some centres, is not helping the cause either. The administration should ensure appropriate facilities and care at these centres, and make people aware about it to allay the fears among the masses. At the same time, we as people should also cooperate with the administration, with our doctors, nurses and the cleaning-cum-sanitation staff who are at the frontline, to fight this pandemic.
I will end the article by drawing an analogy to a famous quote of James Reason. “For a long time, people were saying that most accidents [here transmission of pandemic (COVID-19)] are due to human error [here irrational behaviour of humans] and this is true in a sense but it’s not very helpful. It is a bit like saying falls are due to gravity [We need to create conditions so that we don’t behave irrationally and spread the virus].” Together we can do it!
Author is a Ph.D. student in the department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Gandhinagar