By guest author Adam Grant
It could have been a scene straight out of an apocalyptic horror movie. When the World Health Organization declared the Omicron variant of the coronavirus a “variant of concern” in late November, borders closed, markets tumbled and warnings spread about how this new threat could ravage the world’s population.
And then … many of us went right back to whatever we were doing. In a poll of Americans conducted from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6, almost all — 94 percent — had heard of Omicron. Despite questions that remain unanswered about Omicron’s risks and whether it can evade vaccines, only 23 percent said they were likely to cancel their holiday plans, and 28 percent said they were likely to stop gathering with others outside their households.
It’s a stark difference from when the pandemic first started. Back then, as we learned of this new highly contagious and deadly disease with no vaccine or treatment, many of us stocked up on food and toilet paper, started wiping down our groceries and went into lockdown, only venturing out with protective gear.
But many people aren’t so afraid of Covid-19 anymore, complicating public health authorities’ efforts to slow Omicron’s spread. We’ve all seen this horror movie before, and when you’ve watched the killer jump out brandishing a weapon 10 times — even when you’ve watched him kill — it just doesn’t freak you out the same way. The same rerun has been playing for 21 months. We’re living through a phenomenon that risk experts might call a “boring apocalypse.”
The seemingly constant flow of emergency alerts has dulled many people’s fear response to this pandemic, leading them to let down their guard, relax their restrictions or masking habits, or even refuse potentially lifesaving vaccines. Why? We’ve basically all been through one of the best available therapies for extinguishing extreme fear.
If you have a fear of spiders, the mere sight of a bug with eight legs activates your amygdala — a vital part of your brain’s threat detection system. The amygdala acts as a safety siren that immediately drowns out all the other noise in your head and propels you to take rapid protective action: fight, flight or freeze.
When that response is overactive — especially if you have a phobia — psychologists often recommend exposure therapy. The goal is to make you so familiar with the source of your fear that it no longer seems like a threat. Your amygdala takes a nap and your prefrontal cortex takes over, allowing you to think rationally about whether that daddy longlegs in the bathtub is really a danger.
Therapists generally use one of two approaches to exposure therapy: systematic desensitization and flooding. Systematic desensitization involves introducing the threat in small doses and gradually increasing it over time. You might start off looking at pictures of spiders, and then encounter a live spider in a sealed cage across the room. You learn to manage your fear in less threatening situations before you get up close and personal with the creepy creature.
Flooding, on the other hand, involves putting you right in the middle of your nightmare. A therapist might drop a spider onto your lap. Yes, you’ll probably panic, but the hope is that after surviving the experience unscathed you’ll quickly realize that your terror was misplaced, and you’ll be less afraid of spiders after that.
Billions of people have been subjected to both of these experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, we all went through flooding. We were suddenly confronting an invisible, lethal pathogen that was killing thousands across the globe and around us. The media bombarded us with harrowing images of patients struggling to breathe on ventilators.
Each new wave of communication since then has operated as a form of systematic desensitization. People around the world have been through so many alarms — both real and false — that many have been conditioned to stop fearing Covid-19 in the same way. And every trip outside the house that doesn’t result in people getting sick can serve to desensitize them further. At this point, it’s as if we have built up antibodies against fear.
The mood of the year might also be numbing people’s fear response. As the pandemic has dragged on, I’ve highlighted how many people are languishing in a state of emptiness and ennui. When you feel that “blah” or “meh,” your emotional reactions are subdued. The sense of impending doom that plunged you into action last spring feels more like a nagging headache this fall. Many are tired of being afraid — and just plain tired, too. If a Covid-19 variant falls in a community and no one is there to fear it, does it still make a sound?
This isn’t to say scare tactics have no place in public health messages or private conversations. There’s extensive evidence that appealing to fear motivates people to avoid dangers. It can drive them to quit smoking or wear seatbelts. But as intense as fear feels as an emotional state, it’s also fleeting, which can reduce its effectiveness at motivating continuing behavior change. For example, with efforts to reduce the spread of H.I.V., research suggests that while stoking fear initially increases a patient’s perception of their H.I.V. risk, it actually reduces their condom use. (Counseling and testing programs are more effective in changing behavior.) You can sustain fight, flight or freeze for only so long.
Fear generally works best for motivating one-time acts, especially those that feel risky. Last year, fear was probably an effective way to motivate people to get their first vaccine. But it tends to be less effective for driving repeated behaviors such as getting a second dose and a booster.
Of course, the problem isn’t just being oversaturated with fear messages. Safety behaviors have become so politicized that many people are skeptical not only of vaccines and face masks, but also even of the threat that Covid-19 presents. For a fear message to get through and change behaviors, people need to be confident both that there’s a clear and present danger and that taking action will protect them.
Since 2020, scientists have made astonishing strides in learning how to prevent and treat Covid-19. Health authorities should be applying the same scientific discipline to communications about Covid. Some promising approaches include informing people that a shot has been reserved for them, inviting them to do their part in reciprocating the enormous sacrifices of health care workers and inquiring about what would motivate them to consider a vaccine.
Public health experts can also improve how the message is delivered. It’s not helpful to keep defaulting to what some vaccine skeptics dismiss as “fear porn” about Covid-19, or trying to neutralize fears of immunization with blanket statements that vaccines are safe and effective (How safe? How effective — and for whom?). Experiments show that communications become more convincing when they address counterarguments and acknowledge uncertainty. A more persuasive and honest message is that of course vaccines have risks, but the best available evidence suggests that the risks of Covid-19 are both far more likely and far more severe.
Further complicating the messaging about the risk of Covid-19 is the way that communications aren’t always heard as they were intended. Government officials, medical experts and journalists have bemoaned the woefully low percentage of people in a given area that are vaccinated. They may assume the message is, “If most of your neighbors aren’t vaccinated, you’re in danger!” Sadly, many will hear a different one: “Most of your neighbors don’t see Covid as a threat or vaccines as safe.”
In his pioneering studies of persuasion, the psychologist Robert Cialdini has shown that under uncertainty, people look to others who are similar to them for cues about appropriate behavior. If you see that many of your neighbors aren’t vaccinated, you might hesitate to get a jab too. That’s why the data suggest that health communicators are better off highlighting raw numbers than percentages: Telling people that around 200 million Americans are fully vaccinated can change their perceptions of the norm. They might think, “Vaccines are wildly popular — I need to get mine now!”
Instead of presenting every new threat like a horror film, it might be time to start playing different movie genres. How about a crime thriller? “We’ve found a number of victims of a new variant. The suspect is Omicron, but it’s going to take a lot more detective work to find the means — and to stop it from killing again.”
Or what if we tried sci-fi? “We just received the first communication from the mother ship of an alien species called Omicron. They might turn out to be Klingons or body snatchers, so proceed with caution. But keep in mind that they may not be so hostile — they could be more like Vulcans or the extraterrestrial beings in ‘Contact.’”
One thing is clear: Repeatedly blasting an emergency alert brings its own risks. The last thing needed in a pandemic is a country of people too bored to pay attention and take action.