Why People Tend to Act Irrationally During a Pandemic
Sun, April 18, 2021

Why People Tend to Act Irrationally During a Pandemic



The world has experienced a number of pandemics. The Bubonic Plague, widely known as the Black Death, alone had a death toll of 75 to 200 million from 1346-1353. The Plague which ravaged Europe, Africa, and Asia most likely jumped continents via the fleas living on the rats that so frequently lived aboard merchant ships. The worst pandemic in recent memory is the Spanish Flu, which claimed the lives of at least 50 million people worldwide from 1918 to 1919.

The pandemic with the second-highest death toll was Small Pox of 1520 with 56 million. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, that pandemic killed an estimated 90% of Native Americans. Small Pox was followed by Spanish Flu, the Plague of Justinian (541 - 542) with 30 to 50 million, and HIV/AIDS (1981 - Present) with 25 million to 35 million. 

Centuries ago, many ancient societies believed that spirits and gods inflicted disease and destruction upon those that deserved their wrath. Due to this unscientific perception, many have resorted to disastrous responses. Now that we have science to explain how a pandemic like the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 began, countries can rightfully address it to protect its citizens and stop the virus from spreading. 

While there are nearly 600,000 coronavirus cases and more than 20,000 deaths, it’s still hard to calculate and forecast the true impact of COVID-19. This is because the outbreak is still ongoing and researchers are still learning about this new form of coronavirus. With the increasing cases across the world, many people responded by panic-buying and hoarding supplies in groceries and supermarkets. 


Why People Are Panicking

Many countries are imposing different measures to enforce social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to BBC, an operational business division of the British Broadcasting Corporation responsible for the gathering and broadcasting of news and current affairs, many nations have prohibited mass gatherings, closed public spaces like leisure centers, pubs, and clubs, and implemented a total lockdown with people forced to stay indoors. It has become an important strategy in controlling the pandemic, considering the fact that each person infected with the virus is thought to pass it on to an average of 2 to 3 other people. It has a reproduction number of 1.4 to 3.9. By comparison, the Spanish Flu had a reproduction number of 1.8; influenza, 1.06 to 3.4; and Rhinovirus, 1.2 to 1.83. 

“At this time, we do not know of a safe and effective vaccine, nor do we know if a safe and effective drug will work to eliminate the Covid-19 infection once it has occurred. In the absence of these, our best bet is based on prevention,” Arindam Basu, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the University of Canterbury, said. 

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases rises, the fear among people across the world grows. People began panic-buying and hoarding supplies and food to somehow control the situation. Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, explained that panic happens when the frontal cortex, the more rational part of our brain, gets overrun by emotion. And in the face of uncertainty, humans have always been bad at assessing risk. 

According to National Geographic, an American pay television network and flagship channel that is owned by National Geographic Partners, panic caused by uncertainty causes people to overestimate or underestimate our risks. People’s anxieties are fueled by inconsistent messaging from governments, the media, and public health authorities. 

“We’re not used to living in situations where we have rapidly changing probabilities,” Sonia Bishop, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley who researches how anxiety affects decision-making, said. 



Why People Are Acting Irrationally

During this pandemic, the last thing that people should participate in is irrational and selfish incidents that can only grow fear and panic among others. But this is exactly what is happening. CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, reported that a Singaporean student of Chinese ethnicity was recently beaten up on the streets of London and a woman at an Australian supermarket allegedly pulled a knife on a man in a confrontation over toilet paper. 

One way to explain why people tend to act irrationally during a pandemic is through the “theory of mind,” the ability to attribute things like intent, emotions, or knowledge to others. Psychologists explained that a pandemic leads people to automatically make ethical assessments of other people. They tend to think that people are intentionally doing or saying things that will increase the spread of this disease. 

Theory of mind can quickly lead to fundamental attribution errors, which researcher Paul Andrews defined as “the tendency to assume that an actor's behavior and mental state correspond to a degree that is logically unwarranted by the situation.”



According to Psychology Today, an online site that covers the latest from the world of psychology from behavioral research to practical guidance on relationships, mental health, and addiction, humans tend to act irrationally because we struggle to grasp big, complex, problems, which usually lead to ignoring or denying the scale and reality of it altogether. While governments have already imposed rules to prevent the spread of the virus, many people still don’t know what to do. This leads to learned helplessness where people just give up trying to figure out how to behave correctly and instead use our intuition as our guide.

“Panic, rather than being antisocial, is a nonsocial behavior. This disintegration of social norms… sometimes results in the shattering of the strongest primary group ties,” Enrico Quarantelli, a sociologist who conducted ground-breaking research on how humans behave during disasters, said. 

Unfortunately, just as a person can likely spread the disease to two or three other people, the same happens with panic. "Behavior contagion can herald, mirror, and match the actual physical contagion of an infectious illness in an outbreak,” the book “Psychiatry of Pandemics” said.