Incidents of people coughing, spitting, and licking things in public while claiming to have COVID-19 keep hitting the news cycle. We asked psych experts to break down the MO behind these threats.

By Jenna Birch
April 09, 2020
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This is the latest article in Health's column, But Why? Here, experts decipher the psychological reasons behind the most puzzling human behavior mysteries.

In New Jersey, a man coughed on a Wegmans employee and then claimed he had the novel coronavirus; he was arrested and charged with making a terrorist threat. In Pennsylvania, a woman walked into a local grocery store and coughed on $35,000 worth of fresh foods like produce, bakery goods, and meats. In North Carolina, a man who was arrested for claiming to have COVID-19 while filming a Facebook Live inside of a Walmart. And in California, a woman was in police custody after she entered a grocery store and licked a variety of items in the store, including meat, sparking panic among shoppers.

These are seemingly not isolated incidents. More and more reports have surfaced of people claiming to have COVID-19 or intentionally spreading germs in public areas, where others would obviously be alarmed—especially amid the pandemic. But why?

The answer could be a complicated one, Frank Farley, PhD, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA), tells Health. “This behavior hasn’t been much studied,” he says. “It is more embedded in this pandemic concept. It’s a threat you can’t see, can’t stomp it under your foot. You don’t know exactly what it is, but it seems to be almost overwhelming.”

Farley says when stress reaches a fever pitch, as it has with the global invisible threat of a deadly virus, people have a tendency to retaliate or lash out. Here are three theories as to why people might be taking on threatening behaviors like spitting on others, spreading germs in public places, and claiming they have COVID-19.

Frustration leads to aggression

Farley says there are three broad schools of thought explaining why some people turn to violence—and making threats like this would fall in this category. “One is expression,” he says. “One of the oldest theories of aggression is the frustration-aggression theory. Frustration builds up and you resolve it through an angry episode.”

Sigmund Freud might have called this “catharsis.” “If you think about the frustrating aspects of the current context, it is very high and getting higher everyday,” says Farley. “You cannot go out of your house. We have not had police out of the house and shouting at you, but it could come to that. So your freedom of movement is curtailed.” He says even something small in a grocery store could “trigger” someone and set them off.

Another reason people turn to violence is to manipulate, says Farley. “Violence is used as a way to control situations or control others,” he explains. There have been cases of people resisting arrest by claiming to have COVID-19, like a man in Florida. Farley says this is a clear example of a person trying to “get control of the situation” using the moment’s biggest threat.

People also use violence and aggression as a means of retaliation. Maybe a person fears they will lose their job amid the pandemic, or they become sick of all the rules governing their lives to keep the public safe; they don’t know when all these harsh restrictions will stop. “So, in some small way, the person may be trying to handle this by retaliating against that system,” says Farley.

Fear leads to negative coping mechanisms

Some people may be dealing with the fear of the coronavirus by putting on a front of strength. “People are pretending to have COVID-19 to scare others because they themselves are scared and are putting on bravado,” Carole Lieberman, MD, a psychiatrist and author of Coping with Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted, tells Health. “This is a psychological defense mechanism called 'reaction formation.' It’s like what little kids do when they are scared of something; they try to scare other kids to make themselves feel more powerful and in control.”

In the context of the pandemic, the person would be coping with their fear by making light of it in a sick prank. The defense mechanism aims to “hide their true feelings by behaving in a way that shows the exact opposite feelings,” says Lieberman. “So, for example, someone who is really frightened of catching coronavirus would act like they think it’s all a joke and they might even pretend to have it and cough or sneeze on someone as a prank. They do this to overcome the anxiety and stress they’re actually having because of the pandemic.”

As a more mild extension of this concept, particularly early in the pandemic, you may have witnessed lots more subtle pranking—before hundreds of people per day were dying and the coronavirus still felt like an abstract threat, Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital, Weill-Cornell Medical College, tells Health.

People may have pretended to cough or infect others as a joke or make light of the pandemic while partying on a crowded beach, says Dr. Saltz. “It was a defense mechanism—a way to say, “Oh come on, it’s not that scary” to themselves,” she says. “They were going to deny it by joking around it. I think a lot of those people didn't allow themselves to see the severity at that time. When there is extreme fear about something, there will be deniers. You can take anything in history that is irrefutable and there will be deniers.” Sometimes, she says, it is a coping mechanism.

Uncertainty leads to power- or thrill-seeking

If someone purposely goes into a store and coughs on people or items, Dr. Saltz says they may be motivated by power. “I am deriving gratification by doing something to someone else,” she says of the perpetrator’s mindset. “They are just purely being destructive for gratification. There are people for whom harming others is gratifying.” When people are terrified, like in a pandemic, Dr. Saltz says “doing something that exposes others to a deadly disease” is just another way to be sadistic. “Invoking terror makes the terrorist feel powerful. ‘I can make people feel afraid of me,’ they think.”

Farley says this kind of person may already be prone to pushing the envelope—something he’d like to determine if he studied this phenomenon. “Maybe they like taking risks, going against the crowd, breaking the rules. This country has a lot of those types of people; being a New World nation, it’s in our DNA. I believe the basis for a lot of risk-taking is simply the thrill of it. The excitement of it and the stimulation. Do they have a history of pushing the envelope?”

In his long career understanding human psychology, Farley says it’s almost never just one thing motivating behavior. It is very possible that these offenders have other mental health issues. But stress in a society is concerning, as it pushes people to extremes—both positive, like the front-line heroes risking their lives to fight the virus, and negative, too.

“Given that there are shortages of everything, people are being laid off, potentially shortages of money, that could be a scenario for a lot more violence,” says Farley. “So, these examples just may be the leading edge of a trend.”

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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