It started with an Ethiopian restaurant that had outdoor seating but limited space. My friends and I were wearing masks in the park, but we wanted to grab dinner, and I only realized it was a sit-down place when they beckoned us inside. We took off our masks when we ate, and then, gradually, when we talked as well. Then one of my friends wanted me to meet the cat she was fostering. Saying ‘no’ seemed cold, heartless even. I wasn’t living at home anymore, a few minutes inside couldn’t hurt anyone. My plans for flawless social distancing already shirked, any further missteps no longer seemed like a big deal.
I’m not alone in falling for this progressive cutting of corners. Americans across the country are becoming restless, literally moving around more than before, and many states have reopened despite the fact that case numbers continue to rise. Somehow, many of us have collectively decided to behave as if the pandemic is over, or at least less dangerous than before. But why?
The psychological reality is complex, and there’s no quick fix for the fallacies of human decision-making. People are irrational, and many of the psychological mechanisms that serve to protect us from discomfort have kept us from acknowledging our upsetting reality.
Elke Weber, a professor of psychology and director of the Behavioral Science for Policy Lab at the University, believes that one major explanation for these poor, in-the-moment decisions is their delayed consequences. We learn best when we receive “immediate feedback” — positive or negative information about the outcomes of our actions, which we then associate with the actions themselves. When the feedback isn’t close enough to the actions, we fail to create those positive or negative associations.
“If you don’t lift your feet when you’re walking, you trip and you fall, now you get immediate feedback,” Weber said. “Or if you’re cooking and you leave food on the stove for too long, it boils. I think we really need that immediate feedback.”
Research has linked immediate feedback to learning in areas from mathematics to empathy. Weber, whose research focuses on the psychology of climate-change decision-making, says that the extreme delay in feedback is one of the main reasons people and politicians fail to do anything. Those who have experienced direct, personal consequences that result from climate change, such as residents of Florida or the Arctic, have demonstrated a greater desire to take action.
With a virus like COVID-19, the feedback, often a matter of life or death, is at best delayed, but more often invisible. Symptoms of infection don’t show up until up to two weeks later, sometimes not at all, and people rarely witness the effects of their potential transmission of the virus to someone else. Our associations between actions and consequences can serve as powerful motivators, even in the face of discomfort. Without this feedback, other psychological factors may further hinder our ability to follow proper protocol.
“You’re not wearing a mask right now,” Weber said. “Do you keel over? Does it make the person next to you keel over?”
This absence of feedback makes it much easier to reject a reality that makes us uncomfortable.
People often ignore, or “think away,” problems for which we don’t like the solutions, or for which solutions do not exist — a phenomenon psychologists call “solution aversion.” For example, we tend to hold onto a tacit, naive belief in our own immortality, a self-preservation instinct that protects us from existential dread, from trying to fathom the unfathomable. The COVID-19 crisis has made this tendency more potent — and more dangerous.
“None of us have truly believed that we’re going to die,” Weber said. “It seems like a rumor that other people die.”
Weber’s research on climate change reveals that dissonance. Most climate change solutions require government intervention. But while liberals and moderates tend to favor government intervention, many staunch conservatives do not.
“Those people are more likely to say, ‘This is a hoax. I don’t like the solution, so therefore I wish there’s no problem. And if I wish, it’s going to go away,’” Weber said.
Brent Kibbey ’21, a student residing in Portland, Tenn., has noticed that those around him take the virus much less seriously than they did in April.
“They feel it’s not too much of a threat in terms of its lethality and the percentage of people who have gotten it,” Kibbey said. “Some even go on vacations to Florida or down to Nashville to party.”
Recent studies show that Republicans and Democrats have widely differing perceptions of the severity of the virus. Alongside lower rates of social distancing, attitudes against preventative measures, such as mask-wearing, have only intensified as politicians and pundits have cast the virus as a political controversy. As a result, city and state governments across the United States have issued disparate responses.
Many Princeton students straddle these polarized communities, caught between conservative hometowns and the University’s comparatively liberal environment.
“My Princeton friends are acting cautiously with respect to [COVID-19], much more so than people around here,” Kibbey said. He said that he has exercised the same level of precautionary vigilance since March.
Xiexin Wang ’21, a student residing in Arizona, also noted that the Princeton community has taken the virus more seriously than his local community. Arizona was one of the first states to reopen in May. Case numbers skyrocketed, and though Governor Doug Ducey shut down nonessential businesses again to curb the spread, many residents reject social distancing.
“My neighbors routinely throw parties every Friday and Saturday night, sometimes lasting until dawn,” Wang said.
The persistence of these attitudes, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, also reflects a well-known category of internal conflict called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance refers to the inconsistency between one’s own beliefs, or between one’s beliefs and one’s actions. We like to see ourselves as consistent human beings, even though our thoughts and actions often prove otherwise. Facing these inconsistencies creates psychological discomfort, which we try to eliminate through cognitive dissonance resolution: altering our own beliefs so that they align with our other beliefs and actions.
Psychologists have found evidence for cognitive dissonance resolution in hypothetical situations that share eerie similarities to today’s pandemic. In one 2015 study, researchers invented a fake virus called “human respiratory virus-27.” They informed half of the participants that they were eligible for an unpleasant medical screening to test for the virus, and informed the other half they were not eligible. Neither group ever received the test, but the eligible group developed significantly more negative attitudes towards the test compared to the ineligible group.
The difference in attitudes between the two groups suggests a kind of precautionary cognitive dissonance resolution: participants knew that they would experience dissonance between the unpleasantness of the test and its importance for their health, so they developed a negative stance towards the test to align with that unpleasantness.
Today, the dissonance extends across several overlapping dimensions: between the benefits of social distancing and its arduousness, between the dangers of the virus and the fact that we can’t avoid it perfectly, and between science and politics.
“With the caveat that people’s reactions are usually multiply determined, the main reason for some people’s irrational responses can be seen as a case of cognitive dissonance resolution,” said Joel Cooper, a psychology professor who researches cognitive dissonance and attitude change.
Cooper sees much of President Donald Trump’s success as the direct result of cognitive dissonance experienced by his supporters. COVID-19 has become only the latest in a series of challenges in which Trump’s supporters alter their beliefs to justify supporting him, rather than experience the discomfort of acknowledging his lies or failures.
“From the moment he claimed that his inaugural crowds were larger than Obama’s, people had to come to terms with the contradiction of Trump’s pronouncements and apparent reality,” Cooper said. “One way to resolve the unpleasant dissonance caused by the discrepancy is to buy into the explanation that the news is biased and is engaged in a conspiracy to undermine him. That resolves the dissonance, but now people’s attitudes about how to assess what is real and what is fake have been compromised.”
The same phenomenon, Cooper argues, occurred in cases such as Russian hacking of the U.S. electoral system and climate change. Cognitive dissonance only grows with each controversy, as the apparent stakes of disavowal increase.
As Weber predicted, some people have even decided that the virus doesn’t exist altogether. In one story circulating on social media, a young man who believed the virus was a hoax died, presumably from the coronavirus, after attending a “COVID party” in San Antonio, Texas.
“Each time [Trump supporters] resolve dissonance by changing their attitudes about Putin, Ukraine, climate, and crowd size, they become more entrenched,” Cooper said. “People have done so much to believe his arguments, that when he then tells them that the virus will disappear after 15 cases, they believe him.”
When I think back to my own decisions that day at the restaurant, I realize that many of my psychological tendencies remain at war with one another.
For me, the desire to socialize, for example, or to avoid conflict by going along with the group, clashed with a sense of moral obligation and a desire to conform with the liberal communities of Philadelphia and Princeton. Most people have the same innate psychological motivations; they simply play out differently. As easily as I had gone to my friend’s house that day, someone else may have decided not to.
Though Wang remarked that his community in Arizona has taken the virus less seriously than Princeton, he felt that Princeton students might simply experience less temptation.
“I’m not sure how well we would socially distance after we get back on campus,” Wang said. “We would probably want to meet some of our friends, even if it is in tiny groups, and sooner or later everyone will have met each other, and pretty much our months of self-isolation would have been wasted.”
Despite its liberal environment, social pressures at Princeton, like political pressures, have also undermined attempts at social distancing. Back in March, excessive partying marked the final days before students evacuated campus. Now, the same students might criticize the United States’ failures in handling the virus.
On Aug. 7, a few weeks after I spoke to Wang, Princeton revoked all plans to bring students back to campus for the fall. The plan initially would have allowed first-years and juniors to live on campus if they signed a social contract promising to uphold social distancing protocols. But based on the rapid rise in cases around the country, including at colleges that did reopen, the University abruptly reversed its decision.
The United States remains one of the hardest-hit countries, with case numbers increasing exponentially in Southern communities such as Wang’s and Kibbey’s. As the virus’ newsness has faded, our commitment to lockdown has waned. Many feel that Americans are a lost cause. Can we overcome our own irrationality, and the irrationality of others, at this point? How?
“If I had the answer to that question, I would be running the country,” Weber said.
She is looking to the pandemic as a kind of natural case study. Many of the same psychological principles that contribute to bad behavior also guide good behavior. New research suggests that social norms in favor of preventative measures have proven effective. Empathy and personal experience with the virus can possibly counteract the effects of ideology or selfishness.
In her own research on climate change, Weber has found that while such mechanisms can increase attentiveness, personal experience may affect us most profoundly.
“There’s a kind of learning that’s easy for us,” Weber said. “If we ourselves get sick, or our parents get sick, or our friends get sick, or, God help us, we actually die from it.”
She added: “I guess one question is how far will this wishful thinking and solution aversion actually take you before you say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Maybe it’s not that simple. Maybe there’s something to this.’?”