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People worldwide are scared of the coronavirus. They are anxious that their friends and family will be infected, of that they will be infected themselves. Does that mean we are dealing with mass panic or mass hysteria? Professor in Emotion and Affective Processes Agneta Fischer talks about collective and contagious fear, mass hysteria and how to regulate fear.

Copyright: UvA
Scared people are far more likely to look for information about the threat and to value information that confirms the threat

A real recipe for collective fear

Statistics have by now shown us that the virus is extremely contagious, leading to rapid increases in the number of sick people and mortality rates. Images from China and Italy and the WHO declaring a pandemic have served to further increase our fears.

People who are sick or otherwise fragile are more likely to be infected, but it does not discriminate between the rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, educated or illiterate, or people from the West or any other part of the world. This means the virus is a threat to large groups of people, and we have a good cause to be unsettled, concerned or scared. But are we dealing with mass panic or mass hysteria, and should we expect this any time soon?

A threat, but no clarity

Uncertainty is a crucial element of fear. We are dealing with a threat, but we have no clarity, and we have no idea when or where the virus will strike and how many people will ultimately be affected by it. This is what separates fear from sadness. As soon as someone dies, sadness replaces fear because we have gained security about our loss. We might not have wanted this security, but it is security nonetheless.

Searching for information

People who are uncertain start looking for information. They want to understand the likelihood that they will be affected by the threat, whether their runny nose means they are infected and what they can do to reduce the chance of infection. They will likely find many sources of information without too much trouble, including trending hashtags, websites on the coronavirus, Facebook groups, news specials and their friends' and family's opinions. Everyone has ideas about the virus, where it came from and how the government should respond to it.

Our uncertainty influences the way we search for and process information, what we focus on and what we remember. Compared to people who are not scared, scared people are far more likely to look for information on the threat, remember this information and overestimate the value of information that confirms the threat.

Conspiracy theories

There is also a link between fear and the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories: 'Chinese spies stole the virus from a laboratory to infect their own population, the pharmaceutical industry designed the virus so it could earn money selling vaccines and the politician’s inaction was a ploy to stay in power.'

Conspiracy theories can serve to remove people's uncertainty; they want to understand where the virus came from and start looking for a story that fits their world view. Furthermore, a critical view of earlier statements by experts can serve as fuel for these conspiracy theories. Back in January, the Dutch prime minister and the director of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment, said that the whole matter would simply blow over, and now they are being accused of doing too little, too late. This is called 'hindsight bias' in psychology: critics are always right in hindsight.

So how will this lead to mass hysteria?

As a result of this mass search for information, the opinions of others will eventually become more important than factually accurate information. Eventually, the reactions of others will even eclipse the actual threat.

Imagine being in an aircraft that suddenly shakes very badly. You would initially ascribe this to turbulence, but when the flight attendants start to panic, you and everyone else on the aircraft will likely start to get scared. The way that others respond (the flight attendants, in this example) has replaced the shaking aircraft as the source of your fear.

Our fear of the coronavirus is contagious

This is what has been termed ‘contagious fear’ in the literature, and the same thing is happening with the coronavirus. Based on information about the virus, not shaking hands and exercising social (actually physical!) distance are sound measures. However, going to the supermarket to hoard products when there is still plenty of food cannot be considered responsible behaviour, because it is fuelled by fear of the virus and the newly created fear of not having enough to eat.

What can we do to prevent it?

Fear is a difficult opponent to defeat, especially when there is a real threat of infection. Even so, we can take care not to let our fear control us or influence our behaviour too much. How do we do this? By continuing to think and reflect, rather than letting our gut instincts take over and relying on the opinions of others. By accepting the fact that there is no definitive certainty and that the Dutch government is giving the best advice possible, given the information at its disposal.

A good way to deal with your fear is to put the crisis into perspective (the world is probably home to even worse things) or to look for distraction. Accepting the uncertainty can be particularly effective.

Finally, remember to offer others your warmth and support, so we can all help each other.

prof. dr. A.H. (Agneta) Fischer

Executive Staff