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.
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.