Types of reactions to pandemics are quite new according to Xu, but there are common methods in psychology to categorise them. Xu uses two dimensions – emotional response and cognitive evaluation – to categorise four groups of people: the blindly positive, the panic, the rationally alert and the rationally calm person. Somewhere along those lines are you, your roommates and your loved ones. But before we get to the juicy part of seeing where you recognise yourself most, let’s take a look at the two dimensions to see what they mean.
Cognitive evaluation and emotional response
Cognitive evaluation is the ability to rationally process information from the right sources. This gives you a clear and distinct view of something so that you can take necessary precautions. It’s the difference between reading quality newspapers or believing everything that is shared on Facebook.
Emotional response defines your sensitivity to environmental stimulations: whether you feel like your hair is on fire or feel like corona is, well, not the end of the world. How we respond emotionally is rooted in our genes and determined by evolutionary psychological mechanisms: people’s fear of uncertainty versus their limited cognitive ability to make sense of intangible risks and numbers. “While there is no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ response”, says Xu, “people may suffer from their worries, which might not be necessary.”
Four types of people
The opposition of these dimensions creates the following types of responses. You might fit one type to the extreme or be a combination between them:
These people are living on the edge. While they’re worriers, they also employ measures to manage their mood and thus gain a sense of control over the situation. Xu: “They might be hoarding groceries, but in a rational way. They hoard the right stuff, instead of toilet paper.” Based on knowledge of the virus, the rational alert type might buy more hand sanitisers, soap and maybe order surgical masks online. “And for irrational people, I’ve seen people wearing scuba diving equipment or other weird clothing in supermarkets”, Xu says.
The doomsday thinker. Their response is strong but their capability to make sense of the situation is not. So the panic type will, well, panic. Responses according to Xu might include hoarding and social distancing from very early on that even might turn into social phobia, which means really not wanting to see anyone. “The panic type exaggerates the situation and feels anxious most of the time. In extreme cases, they may have a stronger propensity for aggressive behaviour”, says Xu. If you live with this type and get a chance to speak to them, you might notice that they easily get into fights with others about the corona crisis. They might bombard you with disastrous news or have a nervous breakdown.
Perhaps the most Dutch and hence most common response to the corona situation in the Netherlands. Xu: “Many people still think it’s a type of flu and not a deadly disease for them because they’re young and strong, or they think they won’t catch it at all. It’s not good for the implementation of policy.” She continues: “And if authorities are blindly positive or calm, it’s going to be a disaster because they will miss the opportunity to implement timely measures to stop the virus.” This type also includes people who don’t know what’s going on or follow the wrong information sources. They still go out to parties and social gatherings without worrying and knowing what’s going on and might therefore be dangerous to their own and others’ health.
Why worry when you can’t change the situation? The rational calm type has insight into the medical and social consequences of the crisis but keeps their cool. Xu: “They suffer less, they can control their emotion. So they also go out more, and perhaps take a few more risks.” However, according to the rational calm type, it’s impossible to stay indoors all day. If you can’t go for a run or take a walk, you might go mad, right? So, the risks this person takes are minimised and, in a way, necessary.
Keeping it liveable
Whether you are (or living with) a panic type or a blindly positive type, there are some measures you can take to alleviate some of the stress. With respect to the panic type, Xu says: “One of the main causes of panic reactions is the sense of losing control over the situation. People who panic and think the worst may exaggerate the severity of the situation.” Therefore, the main point is to help the person regain control of their lives, and that could start from the smallest things. For example: do some small chores in and around the house or cook for your roommate. “This will generate instant positive feedback, which makes people feel like they have control over certain things”, Xu explains. “But physical exercise like yoga can also be helpful. This directly improves one’s biological status by increasing the endorphin level, making you feel happy and more relaxed.”
For those who still think the ‘mild’ virus won’t affect you, the psychologist suggests that they do a thought experiment: “Consider the time when you felt the most ill you’ve ever felt in your life and think about your grandparents, your parents, think about the medics who risk their lives on a daily basis. The virus is intangible, but its consequences for your loved ones aren’t.”
“At this vital point, the responsibility to fight the virus lies on everyone”, Xu adds. When people around you start to get bored with self-isolation and ignore the social distancing measures, for example, Xu believes speaking up is important: “Be brave and let them know you disagree. Tell them the consequences of such behaviour: faster and more dramatic spread of the virus, more people ending up in intensive care units, a collapsed medical system. And, cancelling the current efforts that everyone else is making. Creating social pressure is an effective way to change people’s behaviour. So, be brave and speak up for the whole community.”