What's going on with people who just won't stay home and self-isolate—and are even attending coronavirus protests to show their opposition to social distancing?

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

It's been several weeks since people in the US have been strongly urged to practice social distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, most of us have been staying home and avoiding social gatherings. Yet if you watched the news this week, you probably saw coronavirus protests by people opposed to social distancing. And if you check social media, take your dog for a walk, or even just look outside your window, you've probably seen groups of people who are failing to abide by the social distancing guidelines set in place by health officials.

Knowing that COVID-19 is a potentially deadly infectious disease, you might be wondering why some people are blowing off shelter-in-place orders, congregating with friends, even just traipsing around their neighborhood as if there were no pandemic. “It’s difficult not to resent that,” Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor in private practice and adjunct professor of counseling psychology at North Park University in Chicago, tells Health. “Especially given that many individuals are infected with COVID-19 and don’t display symptoms, which makes the disease quite easy to spread unknowingly.”

A “rational mind,” says Ivankovich, “would heed the words of the CDC and most medical professionals” by staying home. “Unfortunately, not everyone is rational right now. COVID-19 is also an invisible disease, which makes it harder.” For some people, it's easier to justify why they're going about their lives as if the coronavirus pandemic didn't exist than stay at home alone and risk boredom and cabin fever.

We might not be able to avoid feeling annoyed or even angry at these folks, but we can seek to understand them. Here are all the reasons people might still not be social distancing or sheltering in place, according to experts.

Mixed messages from leadership can cause confusion

When a behavior is new, people are more likely to practice it if it's modeled for them. Right now, there's little cohesion across state governments and the federal government relaying how to act.

“Social learning theory means that we do what we see,”  Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, tells Health. “People change behavior when they understand why to change behavior, how to change behavior, and when they see other people modeling the new behavior. Mixed messaging around social distancing from people in authority decreases the probability that people will practice it.”

Guidelines that vary from location to location are “confusing and make it less likely that people will practice social distancing,” says Cohen. He also notes that authority figures who do not practice social distancing in accordance with those guidelines also “decrease the probability of people following social distancing.”

A lack of personal connection makes it feel unreal

Experience is the most brutal teacher. If you know someone who’s come down with COVID-19 or passed away from it, or if you are close to someone who is directly facing the virus—front line workers, essential workers—you're more likely to adhere to the guidelines...whereas others might not grasp the need, says Ivankovich. “Those who have not been faced with the aftermath of the virus have not experienced the reality, so they are unable to see the importance of social distancing,” she explains.

Additionally, since the distancing and the isolation are intended to keep numbers of victims down, following the guidelines will result in fewer new cases of COVID-19. People who never followed them anyway might see the reduced number of cases as proof “that this wasn’t necessary in the first place,” says Ivankovich.

Fear can cause people to experience denial

This is a completely new virus sweeping the globe and causing otherwise healthy people to experience severe symptoms. The pandemic is putting our older loved ones and those with chronic conditions in harm’s way. Doesn’t that mean they’ll stick to social distancing guidelines? Not always. “There will be individuals who want to push against that and almost turn off the message because it is too scary to contemplate,” Judy Ho Gavazza, PhD, a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, associate professor at Pepperdine University in California, and host of the podcast Supercharged Life, tells Health.

It’s a challenge to present terrifying facts to the public, says Gavazza. “Research has shown that if you create behavioral change campaigns that offer too grim of a picture, people won’t change their behaviors at all and will just shut it off and ignore it,” she explains. Gavazza points to ads in the 1990s that “tried to equate not using condoms to immediate contraction of HIV and eventual death,” she says. “It ended up not changing any consumers’ behaviors, because it was so severe people tuned it out.” Fear is not always the right way to prompt behavioral changes, research shows.

Defying guidance makes people feel in control of their lives

As a population, we do not like when control is taken away from us, says Gavazza. “It makes so much sense, because we need to have control, or at least the perception of it, to survive and thrive as a species and as individuals,” she says. Since we’ve evolved to take ownership of our lives and are inherently social beings, this pandemic is causing us all to go against nature.

It is possible the act of going out into the world, throwing a party, or running around an otherwise empty city makes people feel strong and alive; it’s a thrill to defy authority and defy the consequences, explains Gavazza. “There are people who are acting like they are invincible, because they associate going against the directives as being a hero or superhuman,” she says. “By acting against it, they roll the dice, but they’re acting as if they are above it all and like nothing can happen to them. It is also another route to trying to establish some type of control."

Some may be having an existential crisis over the virus

Some people, especially those who may be immunocompromised or have an underlying condition, may be experiencing excess fear of contracting the virus. “Some are struggling with existential crises as a result of this—and who wouldn’t? It is a virus that can take people out,” says Gavazza. “Some may be throwing caution to the wind because they’ve already decided they might die from this anyway, so why not live life to the fullest right now?”

Gavazza says she has patients in this category right now. “They are in the vulnerable population, somehow believe they will die from this, and are falling into catastrophic thinking,” she explains. “In some ways, it’s wanting to go out with a bang.” This may seem counterintuitive, but makes sense on one level, "because they want to make the most of what they believe are their remaining days,” she says.

Others can justify a reason for not social distancing

Let’s face it: Social distancing and sheltering in place are both really hard on us mentally, physically, and emotionally. Because of this, there are certain people who might be able to justify defying orders. Cohen points to research from Stanford showing that adults between the ages of 18 to 31 were the group most likely to ignore the social distancing guidelines. Not surprisingly, this group is also least likely to get severely ill from COVID-19, but could spread it as an asymptomatic carrier.

This research suggests that some people will be less likely to practice social distancing if they believe that precautions like handwashing or disinfecting are enough to keep them safe from the virus, says Cohen. “People may not practice social distancing because they worry about their mental or physical health, or may engage in activities to manage cabin fever,” he adds.

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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