A Psychologist Explains Why Coronavirus Makes People Act Like Idiots

The disease is spreading exponentially. So why are people ignoring authorities' advice?
Niccolò Carradori
Florence, IT
Coronavirus and irrational behaviour
Illustration: Loris Dogana

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

As coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, and over 100 countries are confronting the disease, Italy now has the highest number of cases outside of China. Infections and death rates are surging and hospitals are buckling under the pressure, despite authorities’ efforts to contain it.

On the 10th of March, the government put the entire country on lockdown and forced all shops besides pharmacies and supermarkets to shut down. No bars, no restaurants, no clubs. Schools, public events and gatherings were also cancelled and companies were asked to close down all non-essential departments. In a televised speech, Prime Minister Conte summarised the state measures with a simple: “I stay at home.”


But people aren’t exactly following this advice. When authorities told people to remain calm, thousands raided the supermarkets, hoarding food and sanitary products. And while they're telling people to stay indoors, Italians are throwing parties at home or heading to restaurants and bars that should be closed. The government has set up military checkpoints on main roads to fine and even jail people leaving home without good reason, but some are clearly slipping through the cracks. Last Saturday, the 14th of March, many cities closed down public playgrounds and some parks because people were gathering there.

Why are Italians not just doing what we're told to do for our own safety? Are we just ignorant jerks, or perhaps inherently rebellious? I called Renato Troffa, professor of social psychology at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia, for an explanation. “Mass risk perception is a complex phenomenon,” Professor Troffa said. Our individual "frame of reference", like our own social background and environment, heavily impacts how we perceive a risk. "Do you trust the government? Are people around you worried? All this matters," he explained.

People evaluate risks based on three guidelines: the likelihood an event will occur, our ability to control it and how catastrophic the results could be. We base our evaluations on centralised sources of information, like news and objective data, but also on environmental factors, like the behaviour of people close to us. “If you’re really interested or well-versed in a subject, you’ll tend to follow the first," said Professor Troffa. Otherwise, he explained, you'll copy the behaviour of the people around you, and respond the way they're responding. This is especially true when information is constantly changing.


So if your friends think it’s fine to go out during a global pandemic, chances are you’ll do it too. “Obviously, it’s not like these people aren’t afraid at all,” he said. “There is also a fear of being judged.” That explains why someone might decide to go out even if they're not sure it’s a good idea – for fear of being ridiculed. Our brain also has a tendency to try and fit in with the community we’re part of. As explained by Professor Troffa, we often trust a person we know and respect over empirical data. “Things get even more complicated when someone has power over us; if all of our colleagues aren’t working from home, we won't either because we’re afraid of the repercussions for our careers.”

We also tend to underestimate risks when they undermine our habits and routines. “When the information is ambiguous, like over the past few weeks,” he continued, “there’s a part of us that wants to believe the risk is at a minimum.” People want to believe that nothing has to change, because it means their own lifestyle is safe. And this is especially true when a situation limits our personal freedoms, like the freedom to go out to a bar and enjoy a drink. “When we feel limited, our freedoms become more of a priority,” he said.

While raiding supermarkets might seem the opposite of throwing a party, both are irrational responses. “When I say irrational, I’m not judging,” said the professor, adding that both groups are acting on "groundless optimism". “The first one, conditioned by their 'frame', believes that buying up all the food will reduce the risk [of infection]; the second, influenced by another 'frame', think that if they don’t change their habits, they’ll avoid facing their fears and the problem will just go away.”

Professor Troffa doesn't think shaming people will stop the irresponsible behaviour, since “people don’t like to lose their self-esteem and social standing" and are likely to rebel. So what should the government have done? He suggests a more holistic approach would have been better. For example, working from home is generally not common in Italy, but if the government had made it a mandate and not just a recommendation, it would have eased the pressure on people to conform. Empathising with "irrational" behaviour might be difficult, but it could also be the key to containing a disease that's outrunning governments around the world.

This article originally appeared on VICE IT.