Why are people ignoring expert warnings?—Psychological Reactance
From an article by Behavioral Scientist
Syon Bhanot is assistant professor of economics. His areas of research include pro-social behaviour. He writes:
In recent days, public health experts and policymakers have taken to the airwaves and to social media to beg people, effectively, to stay home and avoid group gatherings. Those most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19 implore others to take seriously these instructions. Their lives depend on it. And they are right.
Yet, even as we are inundated with messages about the seriousness of the situation, news shows images of people ignoring social distancing advice in supermarkets, queues, markets, beaches, parks, etc.
Why are people being so cavalier in the face of clear instructions from politicians, top scientists and public health experts?
Behavioural scientists have long studied the idea of reactance, a concept pioneered by Jack Brehm in 1966. In his words, psychological reactance refers to the idea that when individual freedoms are “reduced or threatened with reduction,” people tend to be “motivationally aroused to regain” those freedoms. That is, when you tell me what to do, a part of me feels compelled to do the opposite.
For example, every parent knows that when you tell a child to do something, they seem almost biologically predisposed to doing the exact opposite thing. “Don’t run by the pool!” you shout. “Maybe I should try that…” they think. In short, when someone tells you how to behave, you feel your liberty threatened and “lash out” not only by ignoring the advice but by leaning into behaviour that goes against what is being suggested. It seems possible that in countries that champion personal freedom as a virtue, people might be more predisposed to reactance behaviors than others.
In many instances, reactance is a quirk of human behaviour that is simply frustrating or annoying, and sometimes even amusing. However, right now, reactance is deadly. The advice coming from public health experts to wash our hands, stay indoors, cancel even small-group events, and stay six to nine feet away from others is based on a combination of science and an abundance of caution about a deadly virus we still don’t know a great deal about.
Psychological reactance is also made worse by a number of other factors at this unique time:
Growing antipathy toward expertise and intellectualism in our public discourse. Experts have been proved wrong before.
The nature of this crisis is fundamentally different than many that have come before—that is, the catastrophe is coming, but it has not fully “arrived” yet. Experts suggest that the peak of the pandemic wave is still several weeks away.
Another social virus has taken root in our society in recent years: misinformation. With social media in particular replete with information supporting almost any perspective on the ongoing crisis, people are increasingly able to locate and follow only their preferred advice.
So what can we do about the pernicious effect of reactance?
1. We can be more self-aware and make sure that we are doing the right things for the right reasons. We should consider how we are responding to directives in the coming days and see if our response is based on logic or on reactance.
2. We need to collectively think about how best to frame adherence to directives from experts as a social norm that is cool and worthwhile to follow.
3. We need to rid ourselves of the idea that we have complete agency in this situation. The virus is not a social being, it is a biological entity. You cannot will it away by being “tough” or “clever,” nor can you simply rely on medical care to be available for you if you do become sick. As difficult as it is to hear, personal freedom and the illusion of agency need to take a back seat if we are to save lives during this pandemic.
4. Politicians must tell us the truth. Their words matter. Now is the time for honesty, no matter how hard it might be to hear.
5. it is time for us to listen to public health experts in particular; after all, they are the reason the world weathered outbreaks like Ebola in the past. No doubt, for a country that promotes the idea of freedom, this is a difficult change in mentality. But right now, those who are used to doing what they want need to come to grips with putting others first, and doing what they are told.
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From an article by Behavioral Scientist, 23/03/2020