Over the last several weeks, our world has been in the thick of a global pandemic for the first time since the 2009 H1N1 swine flu outbreak. As scary as the novel coronavirus has been and continues to be for individuals across the world facing threats to their health, the loss of employment, and difficulty feeding their families and paying their bills, this pandemic has provided an interesting opportunity to learn about human behavior in its most primitive form. Over the last few weeks as I have gone out to purchase groceries for my family, I have observed the empty grocery store shelves that cannot possibly keep up with the panic-buying Americans are engaging in, as well as individuals behaving in ways that would likely be totally out of character for them under better circumstances. Why are people fighting over the last gallon of milk and hoarding toilet paper like the world is coming to a swift and certain end? Fear. Fear of illness, fear of loss of their livelihood, and most critically fear of the unknown.
I came across an interesting article published by National Geographic that attempts to explain the science behind why coronavirus is spreading panic possibly faster than the virus itself. The article states that extreme responses from people such as the panic-buying I mentioned above are a common way for humans to cope with uncertainty, because stocking up on supplies gives people a sense of control when they are facing such a rapidly changing and frightening situation. Fear and anxiety are, evolutionarily speaking, adaptive characteristics that helped our ancestors survive in the wild. A healthy amount of fear keeps us safe. We have to anticipate and plan for possibly dangerous scenarios and situations if we want to stay alive. However, that fear and anxiety can in some cases become pathological and lead to anxiety disorders and other cognitive distortions. Biologically speaking, the frontal cortex allows us to perform some of the higher order cognitive functions we have discussed in class so far such as decision making and planning. The amygdala helps to regulate our emotions related to the situation at hand. Panic occurs when fear, an emotional response, makes it impossible for us to make rational higher order decisions using our frontal cortex. Hence the supply hoarding in the case of panic-buying. The article mentions too that panic is a nonsocial behavior that doesn’t help much in situations that present long-term threats, such as the spread of coronavirus. Taking precautions against coronavirus requires performing an accurate risk assessment and effective planning as a result of that assessment. Our frontal cortex is rendered unable to perform these higher order functions when our sense of fear is so overwhelming that our minds are forced into fight or flight mode. I found this interesting because while panic won’t help us cope with our current uncertain situation, millions of people are turning to this rationally out of proportion response.
Additionally, a particular cognitive bias comes into play in situations like this. The availability bias is our tendency to think that examples or events that we can call to mind easily due to frequent exposure have a greater likelihood of occurrence than they actually do. In terms of coronavirus, if you’re like me, you’re checking in with major news channels several times a day to stay up to date on the latest statistics, governmental actions and precautions, and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. While it is certainly good to keep yourself informed so that you can take precautions to protect your health and safety and that of your community, inundating ourselves with national news headlines at a time like this perhaps fuels the widespread fear and anxiety and leaves us with a sense of hopelessness and empty grocery store shelves. Fear is an adaptive response but over the long term can become problematic in and of itself. Let us all remind ourselves to take a step back and rationally consider our next steps despite the frightening situation we have all been stuck in. Everyone is experiencing many similar fears and anxieties and acting out of these emotions instead of stopping to make rational decisions. These behaviors may inadvertently harm members of our communities and leave healthcare workers scrambling to find supplies so that they may continue their life saving work. This National Geographic article did a good job explaining the psychological principles discussed in the article and provided readers with an opportunity to take a break from the scary news to learn something interesting about how the human mind functions.