The Psychology of People during a Pandemic

How does a pandemic like the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) affect people’s psychology, general attitudes and motivations? When difficult times arise you often get to see people’s true nature, both the good, and the bad.

Psychology of Pandemics

We all have survival instincts including fight or flight responses, these instincts kick in to overdrive when such an event like a pandemic or other major events occur. The desire for panic buying, hoarding and stocking up on products is a direct reaction to these instincts. To survive is to make sure you have enough stuff.

Personality Psychology & Pandemics

These instincts are likely to be connected to the personality trait Neurotisim. Particularly anxiety and general negative thinking, believing the worst will happen.

Psychologists who have studied the emotion of disgust, believe this emotion is linked to how psychologically sensitive we are when it comes to contamination, disease and viruses. Those highly sensitive to the emotion of disgust are much more likely to have higher defence instincts when it comes to the idea of infectious diseases.

The emotion of disgust is also linked to the personality trait orderliness, which is associated with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Hoarding is often a symptom of OCD, so these people that stock pile and hoard products could be in part the result of an obsessive compulsive personality.

Also panic buying may start with only a few individuals, triggering others to start doing the same. Therefore, creating a chain reaction of panic buying, and before you know it, there is nothing left.

Certain other personality traits will likely be magnified when they are tested and stressed. Those who are naturally less considerate and uncooperative will likely be controlled even more by those traits, causing people to bulk buy without considering other people. These traits are sub traits of the big five trait, agreeableness.

Much of this is also happening at the unconscious level. Most are not consciously thinking about what they are doing, merely reacting and led by instincts, reinforced by a type of collective panic. Generally, it is a more stressful and anxious time, with worries with regards to the health of themselves and others. Plus, the economic and financial worries that go with it.

Those Who Under-React

At the opposite end of the spectrum you get those who under-react, or under-estimate the seriousness of the issue or pandemic. Partly, this will be due to a type of cognitive distortion, believing that things will remain the same, to continue with the status quo. They may deny things change, they have a preconception of reality, and they may discard information that goes against that preconception.

These people are also likely to be low in traits orderliness (disgust sensitivity) and low in neurotisim. They have a low reaction to the idea of contamination and disease, and they don’t easily get stressed or anxious. They’re also likely to be low in trait agreeableness, which leads to a desire to resist authority. Low in agreeableness individuals also tend to be more rational and logical in their thinking, so less likely to give in to irrational panic.

They may also be high in extroversion, which is the positive emotion trait. The greater the level of positive emotion, the greater the risk taker they generally are. Being psychically fit with no health problems may also lead to someone thinking they’re immune to disease, perhaps even immortal.     

Activities of the Brain

Cortisol increases which is a stress hormone, as well as a build up of adrenaline. This change in brain activity places us into hyper survival mode. Our heart rate, blood pressure and pupil dilation are all effected by these brain chemical reactions.    

Self Isolation & Personality

During pandemics social distancing and self-isolation are often recommended courses of action to try and slow the spread of any contagious virus.

This will especially pose a difficult psychological challenge for those who are more extroverted. Extroverts generally require more outward stimulation, often thriving from meeting new people and engaging in social situations. Extroverts are more likely to feel frustrated in this situation, perhaps becoming demoralized, and may even lead to depression.

Introverts on the other hand are much more likely to better deal with self isolation and staying inside. They are much more likely to be content staying in, watching movies, reading books or messing with their computers.

Personal circumstances will also play a large role in how people deal with the restrictions imposed upon them.

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