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Social Science

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Denial Vs. Dread: Why We React to Crises the Way We Do


In the face of the pandemic, the climate crisis, and ongoing social inequity, some people revert to denial while others sink into desperation. Why?



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A quick Facebook search about the coronavirus pandemic brings up a variety of conflicting results: groups devoted to freedom from vaccine mandates, groups devoted to enforcing vaccine mandates, and groups that fall somewhere in between, to name a few. This likely comes as no surprise; the U.S. has become staggeringly divided on just about every public issue, and our responses to, and beliefs about, COVID-19 only serve to highlight the growing schism. 

But as alienated as we may be, experts have discovered something surprising: our opinions on science, no matter how ideologically distant, often derive from the same place in our psychological makeup. 

“There’s not a group of science deniers, and then a group of science acceptors; it’s not as simple as that,” said Gale Sinatra, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California and co-author of the book Science Denial: Why It Happens and What to Do About It. “We all make certain decisions … people accept some things and then are skeptical of other things. In other words, people pick and choose what they accept and what they deny.”

The current pandemic isn’t the first time in history that humans have exhibited skepticism about science. Part of the reason is that the problems studied by researchers are complicated, which leads to holes in understanding that are ripe for exploitation. “The more that you don’t know about [these concepts], that void of knowledge can be filled with misinformation,” said Sinatra.

Dating back to at least the mid-twentieth century, some such misinformation has been spread deliberately for corporate gain. In a study that appeared in the July 2018 issue of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, researchers Yann Bramoullé and Caroline Orset examined the ways in which industries such as tobacco and petroleum actively disseminated falsehoods in order to downplay the dangers of their products and prevent regulatory action, beginning decades ago. 

These industries capitalized on the exacting pace of scientific research, inserting results into the public dialogue that were frequently obtained by scientists who’d been paid off.

“In their efforts to affect regulations, firms have developed specific strategies to exploit … uncertainty,” wrote Bramoullé and Orset. Tobacco producers, for instance, “spent large amounts of money on hiring and funding dissenting scientists, generating and publicizing favorable scientific findings, and shaping the public’s perceptions through large-scale communication campaigns.” 

The result was manufactured doubt; a public that hesitated to believe legitimate scientists, and a government that acted based on flawed data or the whims of misinformed constituents.

Misinformation isn’t the only factor affecting people’s behavior. When people’s beliefs are at odds with their community’s, they may be afraid to go against the grain due to a fear of being ostracized. In a video circulated earlier this year, Dr. Priscilla Frase, the Chief Medical Information Officer at Ozarks Healthcare in Missouri, said that people were coming in for the vaccine in disguise, or begging health care workers not to tell anyone that they’d received the shots. “Several people … went so far as to say, ‘Please, please please, don’t let anyone know that I got this vaccine,’” she said.  

While some people focus on sussing out what’s real and what isn’t, others so wholeheartedly believe the science that they spiral into anxiety or existential dread.

Joshua Breslau, a senior behavioral and social scientist at the RAND Corporation, said that at the onset of a global crisis such as COVID-19, experts expect large swaths of society to panic. Most people will recover and start looking for ways to cope. “One of the major lessons from this [pandemic] and from prior studies is, most people who report a lot of high distress in the immediate aftermath of a big event get better, and without even getting treatment,” he said. 

Those who struggle to return to a healthy mindset tend to be the same people who had a history of mental health problems prior to the pandemic. “The strongest predictors of how people react is how they reacted beforehand,” said Breslau.

From a public health standpoint, experts focus on those highly distressed individuals when doing outreach or offering care. When it comes to COVID-19, which has been present globally for nearly two years, individuals who are still experiencing clinical distress likely need to seek help. “If people are, at this point in time, still experiencing significant mental health problems, then I think that is probably a pretty strong indication that they may benefit from treatment,” said Breslau. 

Otherwise, to maintain a sense of equilibrium and calm, Breslau said it helps to keep in mind that the media portrayal of the public’s reaction can be skewed.

“The public health message here is, in some ways, what’s not often used in the media: ‘Panic, everybody’s going nuts, and everybody needs mental health care,’” he said. “There’s not a panic that needs to happen.”

Instead, he suggests people try to continue doing things they did prior to the pandemic — whatever they can do safely — and threading that sense of routine through day-to-day life. 

“Keep working, maintain your life and connections and as much normalcy through very abnormal times as possible,” he said. “Find ways to reconnect with people, and try to get back to roles and responsibilities and relationships that support your normal functioning.”

Sinatra adds that it’s important to be deliberate about sources of information. That means not relying on celebrities for health care advice or crowdsourcing medical questions on social media. 

“We don’t recommend that you listen to talk show hosts and politicians for guidance for medical information,” she said, adding that “science isn’t something to be crowdsourced with your friends the way [you might ask] ‘Where’s the best Chinese food in our neighborhood?’ … It’s really a matter of where you’re getting your information. If it’s a medical issue, talk to a doctor.”

Plus, she said, it helps to work towards developing some comfort with uncertainty.  

“Science is never 100% certain,” she said. “It’s an evolving process of moving towards greater and greater understanding of a phenomenon. Would you want to be 100% certain that the vaccine is 100% effective? Well, of course you would, but that isn’t a thing. We want a level of certainty that doesn’t exist.”

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