Four months into the pandemic, a counterintuitive phenomenon has emerged. In March, when the risk of COVID-19 infection was at its lowest, the public’s motivation to follow prosocial pandemic behavior appeared to be at its highest. In the United States, the risk of infection is higher than ever, yet the motivation to adhere to public health recommendations seems to be at an all-time low. This phenomenon is known as caution fatigue and poses severe health risks to communities.
Caution fatigue, which was coined by Dr. Jacki Gollan, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science and a clinical psychologist at Northwestern University, can explain a lot of the recent behavior we have seen in the news. Gollan suggests that the initial burst of energy at the beginning of the pandemic helped us approach the public health guidelines optimistically. However, as we began to find difficulty in foreseeing the end, our energy banks became depleted, and we grew more relaxed about the steps we were taking to mitigate risk. Various behavioral insights can describe what may be causing caution fatigue.
Adapting to the threat
Threat habituation describes when we become less sensitive to threats after repeatedly encountering them. The idea is similar to that of fear-extinction training, a form of psychological training that aims to help individuals with anxiety by repeatedly exposing them to a fear-eliciting cue that is not accompanied by an aversive event. Eventually, the individual’s fear decreases as they learn that there is no real reason to be fearful.1
In this context, the threat is the highly-contagious COVID-19 infection. Nowadays, we are presented with the danger of COVID-19 nearly everywhere — the news, conversations with friends and family, social media feeds, and even work. If we aren’t directly affected (or, rather, infected) by COVID-19 during this, then we may adapt to the threat and gradually become desensitized. Since our brains cannot handle persistently high levels of stress, it is simply more comfortable for us to ignore the threat and return to healthier levels of stress.
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Uncertainty of the threat
The COVID-19 pandemic is considered abstract, especially as we cannot easily calculate the risk associated with our actions and environments. To a certain extent, our mind is often unable to comprehend the actual severity of the pandemic unless we are affected by it ourselves.
One interesting concept concerning risk perception is voluntariness, which describes when risks taken voluntarily are perceived as lower, while risks originating from external forces (or out of our control) are seen as greater.2 While early in the pandemic, the risk of COVID-19 appeared to be out of our control, the level of panic was at its highest. However, as we were repeatedly exposed to suggestions of how we can reduce our chance of contracting and spreading the infection, our risk perception of COVID-19 may have gradually shifted towards feeling as if we were in control. As a result, we may perceive the risk of not adhering to guidelines to be lower.
We are constantly bombarded with information through various channels in situations as noteworthy as COVID-19. Our brains are more likely to remember emotionally salient information, especially adverse events, as these allow us to recognize potential threats. This is known as pessimism bias, which describes how people often overestimate the likelihood and consequences of negative future events. However, with an overload of information, this can become overwhelming.
One major problem that comes with information overload is misinformation. In fact, regarding the myriad of sources out there (especially ones on social media), much of the information surrounding COVID-19 is conflicting and inaccurate. Having to filter out the correct information adds a whole new layer of uncertainty, and can become mentally exhausting for us. As a result, caution fatigue can begin to set in.
Reactance is a theory in psychology that describes how individuals are motivated to regain freedoms when they feel the threat of losing them.3 Classic examples of reactance can be drawn from children’s behavior — you tell a child that they cannot play with a particular toy, and all of a sudden, the child only wants to play with that specific toy. Reactance also applies to adults — during the pandemic, it has caused deadly consequences by contributing to our lack of motivation to adhere to public health recommendations. For example, as the public is repeatedly reminded to wear a mask, some individuals may react by not wanting to wear a mask to unconsciously assert a sense of personal choice.
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Although counterintuitive, the constant reminders to engage in safe behavior can encourage people to ignore guidelines and behave even riskier. Interestingly, reactance may be more common amongst individuals living in countries that boast individual freedom, like the United States.4 Reactance also contributes to the growing antipathy that our country is observing towards experts; put blankly, reactance allows individuals to feel in control of their own lives again, even if this means dismissing strongly grounded evidence and knowledge.
How to mitigate caution fatigue
Ameliorating caution fatigue is not a helpless cause. Firstly, bringing awareness to the concept of caution fatigue and its contributing factors can help promote self-awareness of our actions.
The following are more concrete strategies to combat caution fatigue:
Create a practice of periodically visualizing hypothetical situations where your risky behavior results in you or your family being adversely affected by COVID-19.
This can help in perceiving the risk of the pandemic more tangibly. By placing a greater focus on the long-term consequences of your actions (and overriding our natural tendencies to overvalue short-term benefits), you can also motivate yourself to continue taking the proper precautions and avoid desensitizing yourself to the threat.
Remember that risk is compounded.
Not having been affected by previous risky behaviors does not indicate a lesser risk of acting the same way. Instead, a decline in safety behaviors only adds to your overall risk of being adversely affected.
Focus on receiving news from only one or two reliable sources and limit the frequency at which you check the news to ensure you don’t feel burned out.
This can make the process of understanding information less overwhelming and more comfortable to digest.
With the paradox that psychological reactance presents, it is of utmost importance to remind ourselves that saving lives takes priority over a personal illusion of agency. We must recognize our lack of control over the situation. By doing so, we can maintain our motivation to continue staying safe.
- Myers, K. M. & Davis, M. Mechanisms of fear extinction. Mol. Psychiatry 12, 120–150 (2006).
- Cori, L., Bianchi, F., Cadum, E. & Anthonj, C. Risk Perception and COVID-19. doi:10.20944/preprints202005.0132.v1.
- Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E. & Greenberg, J. Understanding Psychological Reactance: New Developments and Findings. Z. Psychol. 223, 205–214 (2015).
- Bhanot, S., Schwartz, B., Stenger, K. & Gravert, C. Why Are People Ignoring Expert Warnings?—Psychological Reactance – By Syon Bhanot – Behavioral Scientist. Behavioral Scientist https://behavioralscientist.org/why-are-people-ignoring-expert-warnings-psychological-reactance-coronavirus-covid-19/ (2020).
About the Author
Sanketh is an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland: College Park studying Health Decision Sciences (individual studies degree) and Biology. He is the co-Founder and co-CEO of Vitalize, a digital wellness platform for healthcare workers, and has published research on topics related to clinical decision-making, neurology, and emergency medicine and critical care. He is also currently leading business development for a new AI innovation at PediaMetrix, a pediatric health startup, and previously founded STEPS, an education nonprofit. Sanketh is interested in the applications of behavioral and decision sciences to improve medical decision-making, and how digital health and health policy serve as a scalable channel to do so.