Social Sickness


As I write this, I am at home self-isolating because I am sick with symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, COVID-19. Most likely I have the common cold, but I want to be a good citizen and engage in pro-social behavior. People who know me well know that I am a bit of germaphobe. I wash my hands very often. I actively avoid sick people. I keep my house so clean you could do surgery in my kitchen. Okay, maybe I am more than “a bit” of a germaphobe. Yet, with all of these precautions I still managed to get sick.

I am reading news reports of panic shopping, school closings, cancelation of many large scale events. Heck, the whole country of Italy is closed! I hear people complaining about how unnecessary these precautions are. It’s true that most people who become infected with this new virus will not die. Many people who become infected will experience minor to no symptoms at all. So why are we being asked to make such drastic changes to our daily lives?

All of these actions are designed to help slow the spread of this new virus so that the health care system can keep up with the demand for care. Horrifying stories have come out of China and Italy:  hospitals are overwhelmed, many do not have enough of the basic infectious disease prevention supplies so the healthcare workers can do their jobs, intensive care unit patients are being treated in open hallways, cancer patients are being turned away for desperately needed chemotherapy treatments, life-saving surgeries are being canceled to protect patients from the illness. This is a very real global crisis.

Why would anyone hesitate to participate in behaviors that could save lives? Why would anyone openly complain about the inconvenience when people are dying? Some people who have the virus are dying, but many people without the virus are also dying because the healthcare systems are becoming overwhelmed. If the people who have minor symptoms go out in public because they know “they” will be fine, the virus will continue to spread to people who will die from it. Those at-risk people will need to be hospitalized. Health care workers will get sick and there will not be enough available care for people with other treatable illnesses.

Looking at the reaction to this crisis from a social psychological perspective, it truly is not surprising that people are slow to change behavior or even angry that they are being asked. Social dilemmas, or “social traps,” show us that individuals (even kind, well-educated ones) will often choose self-serving behaviors over those that could help the greater good. One of the most well-known of the social dilemmas is the Tragedy of the Commons. In the Tragedy of the Commons, participants are put in situations in which they have a shared resource (the “commons’) that can be used to benefit all of the participants. In one classic example, 100 farmers share a field on which each farmer can graze one cow. The field can easily sustain 100 cows. If everyone plays by the rules, everyone wins. Unfortunately, it does not take long for one farmer to figure out that if he puts 2 cows in the field he will double his yield while not burdening the livelihood of the other farmers. If the field can sustain 100 cows, it can surely sustain 101 cows. The problem is that ALL of the farmers use the same logic. In the end 200 cows try to graze the land and they all die.

With the COVID-19, we can “win” if everyone plays by the rules. Unfortunately, individually it feels like a huge inconvenience to close the schools, isolate at home, cancel concerts, and avoid travel. If one person goes out in public while possibly contagious, it might not contribute to a large spread epidemic and the individual will incur no (immediate) personal harm. But if most, or even some, people ignore the safeguards, we can quickly end up in the same dire situations that we see in China and Italy.

Sitting in my self-imposed quarantined state, I am thankful for my neighbor who brings me food and continues to ask if I need anything. She leaves her care packages on my porch. When I am well, I intend to return the favor of being of service to friends, colleagues, family, and neighbors who need to keep their social distance from the rest of us. We are all in this together.

About Susan Sheffer

Professor of Psychology at Lewis University Areas of expertise include Psychology of Religion (relationship between science and faith); Health Psychology (physician-patient relationships/treatment compliance); Social Psychology (relationships); Psychology in the Workplace (Industrial/Organizational Psychology); Statistics; and pedagogy.

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