COVID-19 and Social Psychology (Or Why We Behave Irrationally)

March 10, 2020 Social Influence 1 comment

COVID-19 a.k.a the novel coronavirus has exerted a huge toll on the world.

As of this writing, there are a total of 109,970 cases worldwide, with 3,827 deaths reported. Fortunately, over 62,000 have recovered from the flu-like disease.

Although the lethality of COVID-19 is less than SARS or MERS, it appears to be more contagious. At the rate it is spreading around the world, there is a chance that it could develop into a global pandemic—that would happen if sustained person-to-person transmission occurs outside China.

While human tragedies hog our headlines, we mustn’t ignore the economic and business impact of COVID-19.

According to the World Economic Forum, the economic impact of the coronavirus has already surpassed both SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). The Brookings Institution estimated that the drop in global GDP could be as much as US$2.3 Trillion.

Here in Singapore, many firms in the travel, hospitality, retail and F&B industries have suffered huge drops in business. Trainers too have reported significant declines in revenues, often precipitated by cancellations and postponements of training sessions.

How Social Contagion Happens

As we continue to battle this global scourge,  I’d like to appeal for greater rationality in how we manage this situation.

To do so, we’ll be taking a leaf from social psychology, which is defined as the “scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined or implied presence of others.”

Often, what triggers our thoughts and actions are invisible to us. Resulting from our preference for nonconscious processing (Daniel Kahneman’s System 1 mode of mental processing), these intuitive actions are driven by our autonomous “lazy brain.” They are also ignited by the people surrounding us and the way we perceive their behaviours.

While such “fight-flight-freeze” mechanisms have helped us to survive in the ancient past, they are ill-equipped for our current social-digital-age. By understanding how our brain works, I hope to spread more positive behaviours in light of the prevailing crisis.

#1 Anchoring Effect

The surgical mask is the first and most important symbol of COVID-19. It came out from the earlier reports on the infectious disease when it emerged in the City of Wuhan in the Hubei province.

This has resulted in anchoring, whereby people rely heavily on pre-existing information or the first information they find when making decisions.

The high visibility of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used by medical professionals treating the novel coronavirus patients made everybody else think that they need to use them too. While they are useful in protecting one against nearby droplet infections, wearing them properly is key. Often, the problem lies in people finding them uncomfortable and hence touching their faces (with their unwashed hands) even more frequently than those without masks.

#2 Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) Phenomenon

Calling COVID-19 a “Chinese disease,” many nations in the West were slow to take action to prevent the spread of the contagion. To them, the wearing of masks is seen as an overreaction, and the screening of passengers only needed when things get rough.

By adopting the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) behaviours, these countries only started to impose stricter measures much later. Sadly, these slower efforts resulted in the disease spreading far and wide.

The NIMBY syndrome is also seen among people who obviously have a sniffling nose or a cough and CHOSE NOT TO wear a mask. While they may not be Covid-19 positive, being hygienic is still the way to go to stop the spread of any disease.

#3 Ostrich Effect

In extreme cases of NIMBY behaviours, people may stick their heads in the sand like the proverbial Ostrich (even though this has been disproved). By refraining from conducting swab tests for the COVID-19 virus, certain jurisdictions have declared themselves as “Coronavirus free” for the time-being.

Of course, as time has already told, this false impression will not be able to stand up to scrutiny for long.

#4 Confirmation Bias

This is one of the most common forms of cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias is our tendency to cherry pick evidence and information to fit our own views and beliefs of the world, while disregarding anything else which runs counter to that perception. It colours the lenses we use to view things happening around us.

For COVID-19, confirmation bias is the reason why East Asians have been subjected to racist remarks in recent weeks.

In seemingly progressive cities like New York and San Francisco, Chinese restaurants saw huge drops in business due to the association of the exotic Chinese diets in Wuhan’s Seafood Market (bats or puppies anyone?) with how Chinese cook their foods.

While this is illogical, purveyors of this view will seek evidence to confirm their views.

#5 Fundamental Attribution Error

Similarly, people have blamed the Chinese government for “genetically engineering” and “releasing” the coronavirus into the world as a form of “biological warfare” even though it makes absolutely no sense—the sheer majority of victims are Chinese.

This is an example of fundamental attribution error,

Propagated by fiction, conspiracy theorists and the recent power-consolidating moves of President Xi Jinping of China, this over-emphasis on a personality-based explanation (the Chinese are secretive and wish to dominate the world) results in an under-emphasis on how the situation itself influences that same behaviour.

Put it another way, nobody in China (and certainly not President Xi) would want this scourge upon themselves.

#6 Selection Bias

Have you noticed how you’re suddenly more sensitive to the people coughing or sneezing around you?

The selection bias is our tendency to notice something more when we’re made to be more aware of it. Thus, the continuous news and publicity on COVID-19 has hyper-sensitized everyone of us to the sniffles, throat-clearing, and coughs happening around us.

While we may imagine that the Wuhan bug is now everywhere, don’t be alarmed—the likelihood is that most of the viruses, bacteria and other micro-organisms causing respiratory conditions around you are probably the common cold or flu.

They are not suddenly more common—we just happen to notice them more.

#7 Puritanical Bias

What is a puritanical bias?

Well, it is a form of cognitive bias which places the blame of any wrongdoing entirely on the individual and neglects how broader societal factors influence them.

Thus, we may point fingers to the persons responsible for spreading COVID-19 in the different clusters and label them as irresponsible human beings.

Or that they should’ve done a lot more to prevent the infection from spreading.

The truth is that nobody can really know if they’re a carrier since the majority of carriers are asymptomatic—for all you know, you and I may also be carrying these crown-shaped germs in our bodies!

#8 Group Attribution Error

Sometimes we go beyond blaming individuals to tarring the entire group with the same brush.

Also known as group attribution error, it is the social psychological phenomenon where we believe that the characteristics of an individual group member are reflective of the group as a whole.

Or that the way certain groups behave are reflective of their preferences—even when the information available suggests otherwise.

The earlier example of racist treatments of East Asians is one such example.

Another example would be the way people imagine that churches could be hotbeds of infection when two major COVID-19 clusters associated with churches were found in Singapore.

#9 Stereotyping

Which leads us to stereotyping—a type of prejudice which we have on a group of people based on how they look or behave on the outside.

There are so many examples in the novel covonavirus case….

  • People from China are unhygienic and eat unclean animals
  • Chinese are unhygienic and eat unclean animals
  • Church goers rely too much on their faith in God to protect them from COVID-19
  • Singaporeans are “kiasu” and given to silly behaviours like stocking up on instant noodles and toilet paper (more on that later)

#10 Social Proof / Mirroring

Talking about the infamous toilet paper run in Singapore supermarkets, I’m sure you’ve heard of the saying “monkey-see-monkey-do” right?

Well, that is an example of social proof—a psychological and social phenomenon where people copy the actions and behaviours of others similar to themselves in a given situation.

Also known as the mirroring effect (a reflection of the “mirror neurons” at work in us), social proof may sometimes be irrational.

#11 Bandwagon Effect

Taken to extremes, the mirroring behaviours could sometimes result in groupthink and herd behaviours.

Also known as the bandwagon effect, it is the syndrome whereby beliefs, ideas, fads and trends tends to snowball and accelerate the more we see others do it.

From what we’ve seen of the toilet paper hoarding behaviours in supermarkets around the world—from cities in the US and Europe to Japan and Australia—it is quite safe for us to say that “kiasuism” (being afraid to lose) isn’t a uniquely Singaporean trait!

#12 Loss Aversion (aka the Scarcity Effect)

Do you know that our fear of possibly losing something is far greater than our joy of possibly gaining something?

Triggered no doubt by our neurological make-up, our species’ loss aversion is the reason why people are running after basic necessities like rice, instant noodles, toilet paper, and canned foods the moment the DORSCON Orange code was announced in Singapore.

Those who fell prey to the scarcity effect were probably fearful that they won’t have enough food to eat, and hoped to improve their chances of survival should the worst befall us.

This ties in nicely with our next phenomenon…

#13 Echo Chambers (aka Filter Bubbles)

Aggravated by the Filter Bubble Effect, echo chambers are especially prevalent in the social media age.

An echo chamber can be defined as “an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered.”

In the case of how rumours and half-truths on COVID-19 are spread online, I’ve noticed that they often take the following form:

  1. A photo or video with a particularly shocking or emotionally upsetting image
  2. Overlaying news-sounding “facts and figures”, often in a hard-to-miss font type
  3. Spreading of the “meme” like content through social networks—particularly Instant Messaging Groups

One of the reasons why echo chambers are so prevalent on social media can be traced to our next social phenomenon…

#14 Social Currency

Social currency refers to the influence (or pull) which we have on others. Often, we would like to “grow” our social currency by sharing information that is interesting, helps build relationships, demonstrates our authority, or ignites conversations.

In the case of COVID-19, everybody wants to get a piece of the action. Some do so by creating content related to the disease. Others will share gossipy information related to it. Yet others will spread hearsay that seems to be the “first” amongst their circles.

Social currency is probably the reason why a Singapore minister’s supposedly closed-door dialogue with business leaders was spread so quickly and pervasively despite it supposedly being out-of-bounds to those not in the session.

#15 Dunning–Kruger Effect

Everybody wants to look good. And intelligent. And not be labelled as “idiots.”

This leads to the dangerous situation of non-medical practitioners spreading so-called “latest research” coming from China which claims that certain herbs could “cure” the novel coronavirus.

A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing—especially in the wrong hands.

By the way, this tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability and the tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is the reason why the top researchers in this field speak with far less certainty than the auntie or uncle living downstairs from your flat!

#16 Negativity Bias

Bad memories are always stronger than good memories. Thus, we’re more likely to remember disasters like 2003’s SARS and 2001’s September 11 disaster than the year when Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s First Olympic Gold.

This psychological phenomenon where humans have a greater recall of unpleasant memories relative to positive memories is called the negativity bias. Coupled with other psychological factors like loss aversion, social proof, and the fundamental attribution error, it ignites behaviours which imagine the worst-case scenarios even when the facts state that it isn’t so.

Thus, we tend to place more importance on the past negative events and behave correspondingly.

#17 Impact Bias

What is an impact bias?

Well, it is our tendency to overestimate the length or the intensity of the impact of future feeling states. This means that we tend to think that the negative thing which we’re experiencing right now will continue to make its presence felt in the future.

Often, as history has shown us, this isn’t the case. For example, the effects of SARS may have been detrimental to our tourism industries for a couple of months in 2003, but we managed to recover fairly quickly from it.

While COVID-19 is going to leave its mark on the global economy and healthcare scene, it isn’t going to be permanent. Sooner or later, things will get back to normal.

#18 Media Effects

Last but certainly not least, I’ll like to talk about the effects of the media.

As we all know, COVID-19 has been very widely and persistently covered by both the mainstream and social media. Virtually no other disease in the world has received as much airtime and online coverage as the novel coronavirus.

Media influenced effects can occur immediately upon exposure to a media message, and may last for a few seconds to even months and years. They can be both positive and negative.

While the authorities around the world tried valiantly to stop healthy people from wearing masks—and to get sick people to wear them instead—the almost continuous imagery of mask-wearing individuals portrayed by the media made it difficult to get this message across.

Having said this, the close cooperation between the authorities in Singapore and the media has resulted in our population taking on positive precautionary measures quickly. This has helped us to contain COVID-19 and prevent its exponential spread to the community—at least for now.


And there you have it—my list of 18 social and psychological phenomena influencing how information (and misinformation) on COVID-19 is propagated around the world.

Are there other social psychological quirks that you’ve noticed beyond those above? I’ve love to read your thoughts!

By Walter
Founder of Cooler Insights, I am a geek marketer with almost 24 years of senior management experience in marketing, public relations and strategic planning. Since becoming an entrepreneur 5 years ago, my team and I have helped 58 companies and over 2,200 trainees in digital marketing, focusing on content, social media and brand storytelling.

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