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Human Behavior: Response to COVID-19 Part One

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Part One: Psychology

by Autumn Thatcher (MSC ’15)

There is no shortage of coverage on the way in which people are responding to the global pandemic that is COVID-19. Most of what I come across is representative of extreme opposites. Responses to guidelines provided by public health experts—such as wearing a face mask in public—vary from strictly adhering to the guidelines, completely disregarding them, or being somewhere in the middle. Observing the behavior and reactions that accompany some of these responses led me to wonder: what drives our behavioral responses to the crisis at hand?

“Social perception, which involves looking at how people’s behavior is shaped by their perceptions of other people’s behavior, may be one area of research that might be of interest when thinking about how people make judgments about risk and how those perceptions of risk affect decision making as well as  behavior,” says Westminster Associate Professor Dr. Jonathan Amburgey.

Jonathan is the chair of the undergraduate psychology program at Westminster, is an affiliated faculty member in the data science program, and has been teaching and conducting research at the college for almost eight years. His professional and scientific background and training is in experimental social psychology/neuroscience and quantitative psychology. “My area of the behavioral and neural sciences is concerned with understanding human social behavior very broadly from different levels of analysis,” Jonathan says. “As a scientist and educator, I approach looking at and understanding human behavior from a perspective that incorporates interdisciplinary methods and research to shed light on how complex and dynamic biological and environmental factors interact to influence human cognition, emotion, and behavior.”

Jonathan says the behavior we read about in the news—or simply observe in our own lives—during this pandemic might be tied to a few cognitive biases that have been studied in social psychology/neuroscience and other areas of the behavioral and neural sciences for many decades. “What I mean by biases is a tendency to think about information in particular ways that can skew your perception from what might actually be more objectively true or likely in a circumstance,” he explains. 

Regarding my specific questions about hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer or choosing to wear a face mask (or not), Jonathan says that our decisions tie into these cognitive biases. “One of the things that’s been known for a very long time in behavioral and neural sciences is that there’s actually quite a bit of variability among individuals in terms of whether they tend to underestimate or overestimate certain kinds of risks to themselves and even others,” Jonathan says. “One example of a situation where people tend to underestimate personal risks is what we call the optimism bias. As the name implies, this is a situation where a person tends to think that they, and maybe even those who are close to them socially, are at a lower risk for a certain type of threat. Most people in general gravitate toward this optimism bias.”

Jonathan explains that optimism bias can help people avoid or minimize the negative emotions associated with the risk or threat that they are presented with. He adds that in some cases, individuals might exhibit an extreme version of optimism bias that sets them up to not realize the degree of risk that is hovering around them. “The thinking behind why some people do this is that it’s one of many ways that individuals can cope with their perceptions of certain kinds of risks and threats,” Jonathan says. In some respects, buying excessive amounts of toilet paper or other items could be a cognitively easy way of feeling a degree of control over the uncertainty of current and future events. 

Opposite to optimism bias is the availability heuristic, which Jonathan defines as understanding human cognition from the perspective of recalling certain kinds of events and risks from what’s most accessible in memory, whether those events are actually likely to occur or affect oneself. “Right now, if you look at virtually any media coverage of COVID-19 anywhere in the country, much of that media is centered around vivid scenes of COVID-19 patients on ventilators and other things that really grab our attention and create more vivid kinds of memories,” Jonathan says. “Without minimizing the seriousness of the fact that tens of thousands of individuals have already died from COVID-19 in the US, it’s easy for us to recall the vividness and uncertainty associated with that reporting relative to the less vivid and extreme reports, such as progress with distancing, contact tracing, etc., which is why the vivid information can sometimes lead us to overestimate personal risks in certain circumstances.”

I ask Jonathan if there is a way, when thinking about how to respond to current events, to land somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. My question is grounded in the hope that if we can recognize we are leaning toward one of these extremes, then perhaps we can identify this within ourselves and work our way toward finding a balance in how we make our choices and, ultimately, how we treat others.

“One of the keys is first simply being aware of these different kinds of cognitive biases and how they can lead us to misperceive certain aspects of information and how that relates to more objective degrees of risk for ourselves and others,” Jonathan says. “It’s perfectly natural in many respects for people to engage in these ways of thinking and have these very broad differences in how they cope with certain kinds of perceived stressors. Simply being aware of that can help individuals catch those thinking tendencies and do things to change their behavior in ways that can help lower their stress and ensure their safety. And, it’s critically important that people have the necessary supports and resources, listen and follow the recommendations of credible public health and medical experts, and avoid seeking out only information that confirms a particular perception, whether that perception is an under- or over-estimate of risk or safety.”

As time goes on, the responses to this pandemic will continue to vary. I ask Jonathan what advice he would give to those trying to navigate the pandemic without getting too distracted by how others are behaving and comparing their own actions to these responses. Jonathan advises being kind to ourselves. “There’s tremendous variability in how individuals process and make decisions about risk and how they cope with things that they perceive as stressful or not,” Jonathan says. “It can be really easy sometimes for people to make false social comparisons of themselves with others—we are a social species after all. If, for example, you perceive yourself as overreacting or under-reacting and then seeing others doing the opposite of that, it’s really easy to beat yourself up over it and not recognize that there are true differences across individuals and how the same information impacts them relative to yourself and others. Being aware of these different kinds of cognitive tendencies and how they can shape your perceptions and behaviors can be a good starting point.”



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