How our desire for a pre-pandemic world is causing it to last longer
Several countries are facing second and third waves of the COVID-19 pandemic that are a lot worse than the first. Almost all of these countries could have avoided or at least reduced the severity of the crisis they are facing now. Several warning signs were ignored on either a government, community, or even a personal level.
Although a lot has been written about failures at the government level, as a psychology student researching decision-making, I want to focus on the community and personal aspects of our crisis response. When the worst of the first wave had been relegated to the rearview mirror, people started attending and organizing weddings, going on vacations, socializing, dining out — largely resuming their everyday lives as they were before 2020; all without getting vaccinated.
Given that humans are a highly risk-averse species — a trait that has ensured our survival over the years — this kind of behavior seems surprising at first. However, if you take a step back and consider how we have responded to other crises of a similar nature, this response does look more typical. Take for example the climate change crisis. There have been repeated calls to action and warnings about how close we are to a point of no return. Still, our general reaction has hardly been appropriate to the severity of the potential consequence.
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In an interview with TIME Magazine, Dr. Paul Slovik, the President of Decision Research at the University of Oregon, talked about why we display these indifferent responses. His explanation can be easily understood with three rhetorical self-directed questions:
1. “Yeah, that’s all okay, but will anything happen to me?”
When the first wave was on its decline, and the daily count of cases was getting lower by the day, the answer to this question was “no”.
This misguided feeling of invulnerability stems from our tendency to let immediate concerns take precedence over long-term consequences. We ask ourselves — what are the consequences of the pandemic for us? right now? in the place where we live?
Moreover, even if we do consider long-term consequences, avoiding them requires some level of sacrifice right now for eventual pay-offs. After already having made these kinds of sacrifices during the first wave, the temptation of comforts like traveling, meeting friends, and eating out couldn’t be more enticing. When combined with the fact that we tend to discount the risk of long-term consequences even when we do think about them, this makes it apparent that people are not going to inconvenience themselves unless they absolutely have to. And with governments easing restrictions, they didn’t.
An argument could be made that people had just witnessed the outcome of the first wave, so the consequences should not have seemed all that distant, and therefore the risk-discounting explanation doesn’t explain the indifferent response. But in reality, even when the consequences seem immediate, our response is still misappropriated due to an optimism bias.
“It’s not going to be crowded where I am going, it’s a remote location.”
“It is just one meal and we are going to be seated outside.”
“The situation is not so bad in my district or state; residents of the other state have to worry about all these precautions.”
By engaging in this type of reasoning, we are essentially distancing ourselves temporally, personally, and geographically from such crises.
2. “Even if I get infected, how bad can it be?”
Even if we try to relate to the crisis on a personal level, it isn’t easy to do so. Common rhetoric in media coverage during the first wave stated that young people are not affected severely by COVID-19. Additionally, many of us saw relatives and friends recover from COVID-19 with mild symptoms. So even when we try to imagine the personal consequences, they don’t seem as severe. And of course, we find it hard to imagine the consequences at a community or national level and how those might ultimately affect us — like they are doing right now.
If it’s hard to picture, it is easy to ignore. ~ TIME article on why we ignore climate change warnings
3. Even if I act proactively, is it really going to make a difference?
This question drives the kind of reasoning wherein we argue that even if I don’t go out or travel, my friends and countless other people are still going to do it. My actions won’t truly make a difference and are ultimately futile. So, I might as well enjoy myself.
Here’s my thing with decision biases — they can explain behavior but not excuse it. Especially in such cases, where thousands of people are dying every day and hundreds of thousands are getting infected and hospitalized. Our indifference has brought multiple healthcare systems to their knees. Yes, we can turn and point towards the standard of government — the legislative prowess of countries around the world has been highlighted by the pandemic. However, at some level, we are personally responsible too.
It is not as though we don’t take actions that are for the greater good that we don’t want to, such as paying taxes or shoveling snow off the sidewalk. These aren’t fun or convenient but are necessary for our overall success and resilience. So, while it may be inconvenient, we need to get past our biases and get over ourselves to prevent situations like the ones numerous countries are facing — for the greater good.