Polarized Reactions Towards COVID-19: A Behavioral Analysis

Posted September 8, 2020

Where to strike a balance between fear and optimism?

September 2020


This article was developed by Fatima Keaik, Project Coordinator for the “Institutional and Technical Support for the Establishment of the Kuwait Public Policy Center (KPPC)” project at UNDP Kuwait. Within the partnership of UNDP and the State of Kuwait, represented by the General Secretariat of the Supreme Council of Planning and Development (GSSCPD), the KPPC project supports the establishment of a pioneer KPPC to address policy making gaps and mainstream policy research, analysis and studies in the policy making process.

The views, analyses, and policy recommendations do not represent nor reflect the views of the GSSCPD nor the UNDP. The article represents the views and analysis of the author.


This article benefited from the review and comments of Hideko Hadzialic, Resident Representative of UNDP Kuwait, Roxani Roushas, Innovation Analyst at the Regional Hub in Amman, and Dr. Sungsoo Chun, KPPC Health Advisor. Special thanks to Meshari Bin Hassan from KPPC/GSSCPD, Ali Al-Sayegh and Aishah Al-Qabandi from UNDP country office for their proofreading and valuable feedback.

COVID-19 is a complex and multifaced crisis. Particularly when looking at it from a behavioral science lens.  The complexity persists against the backdrop that individuals, regardless of their origin, are responding to the crisis in a polarized way. No matter how much unity this crisis may have brought, still there seems to be a polarization when it comes to how individuals are reacting and responding; hence behaving.  In fact, looking at countries’ response plans, no matter how different the approach is, they share a common assumption: people will adhere to the public health regulations and measurements.

Behavioral Reaction Spectrum: from Underreactors to Overreactors

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s reactions have translated into different behaviors - either positive, optimistic, and overconfident (underreactors); or negative, fearful, and pessimistic (overreactors).

On one extreme, “underreactors”, are overly optimistic, framing the virus as “just a flu”, overemphasizing the low mortality rate (making the low-probability very salient), labeling news as “fake news”, believing in conspiracy theories, among others. Such individuals are less likely to cooperate and change their behavior to adopt the public health guidelines by the WHO and the government. This is mainly due to the desire of people to maintain their pleasurable state (status-quo) when faced with difficulty or change.

Conversely, “overreactors”, who are experiencing completely opposite line of thoughts and emotions. This segment tends to be risk avert, experiences negative reactions and defensive responses to threat and fear. They experience high level of emotional and psychological responses such as stress, anxiety and fear. They are more likely to be pessimistic, assume worst-case-scenario, and significantly affected by fake news and misinformation. Additionally, they are more likely to cautiously cooperate and strictly follow the public health warnings.

From Polarized Reactions to Polarized Biases and Heuristics

Whether being an “Underreactor” or “Overreactor”, those behaviors are caused by interpretation of cues, information, and experiences and behavioral cognitive biases and heuristics[1].  Taking into account that people respond to the same stimulus in different ways, they are susceptible to different cognitive biases and heuristics.[2]

Optimism Bias: “It is just a flu after all!”

One of the most prevalent cognitive bias during this pandemic is optimism bias[3]. This bias makes people believe bad events are less likely to happen to them compared to others; leading to the perception that it is “just a flu”, and hence reducing the adoption of preventive measures.

Normalcy Bias/ Worst-case Scenario Bias

Normalcy bias[4] leads people to minimize the threats and their warnings, as they underestimate the probability of a disaster happening. As much as they want to maximize their pleasurable time, they are less likely to act when faced with threat warning, expecting that things will remain normal.   Whereas, worst-case scenario bias is when individuals experience overreaction towards threat warnings and exaggerate the likelihood of negative consequences. Overreactors are most likely to experience worst-case scenario compared to underreactors who tend to have normalcy bias.

Confirmation Bias and Law of small numbers

The law of small numbers[5] refers to the incorrect belief that small numbers represent the population. This particularly manifests with underreactors overestimating the probability of finding a vaccine. Based on that, individuals experience another bias known as confirmation bias[6]: tendency to research, interpret and favor information that confirms one’s beliefs and perceptions. Therefore, when looking at small numbers in the death rate, and small size experiments being conducted to find a vaccine, they experience positive effect and confirm their own beliefs that it is just a flu and normal life will be back soon.  These thoughts and beliefs lead to a positive attitude, and hence a less likelihood of following policies and measurements. This also applies to “conspiracy theories”, that confirm what underreactor believe in. Overreactors also experience confirmation bias, when they see information that confirm their own negative and pessimistic thoughts. This can result in greater susceptibility to fake news and can eventually translate to receiving more feeds that induce fear, anxiety, and pessimistic thoughts.  

Polarized Reactions to COVID-19: What can we learn from Behavioral Insights?

What this crisis demonstrates, is that COVID-19 is another “collective-action problem” facing humankind such as climate change, other public health issues, and environmental risks. This is true because it requires a collectivism and cooperation, as one’s actions and decisions highly impact others. Various factors influence collectivism towards public goods; however, in the case of COVID-19, public trust is extremely relevant; meaning that both underreaction and overreaction may result from lack of public trust in the government and its policies.

The main objective of behavioral interventions by governments should be to instill collective action and community engagement and cooperation; where the safety and wellbeing of others is as important as the wellbeing of an individual. And if such change is hard to maintain and sustain, then governments should be cautious in the communication tools and strategies to strike a balance between fear and optimism. This is where the role of behavioral insights stems and is of critical importance. It includes both the knowledge of what drives behaviors as well as tools on how to encourage the right behavioral change. Collective problems, like COVID-19, incorporate a behavioral component, where behavioral science can shed light upon decision-making processes and their underlying cognitive biases. It also provides policymakers with tools to mitigate the effect of these and other biases on public policy and its implementation. More research needs to be done to understand the differences among different countries/ regions/ or communities, and how this polarization is manifested and what are the triggers that lead to different reactions (e.g. trust, reciprocity, social networks, civic and community engagment, and individualism/ collectivism characteristics, etc.).

Implications on Public Policy and Government Decisions

When compliance is key, this analysis has noteworthy implications on what governments’ post-lockdown strategies and operational plans to restart the economy. That by itself complicates the targeted response and communication strategies devised by governments and communities. However, it is important to carefully strike the balance so that the right behaviors and most importantly attitudes are in line with expectations. After all, countries now depend more than ever on people’s adoption of the right social behaviors in preparation for the restart.

Another takeaway is that policies and government regulations must be tailored to the context, culture, and characteristics of different communities.  Policies taken out purely from scientific context, with no consideration to the previously mentioned factors, failed to inspire the desired responses when communicated to the public. Thus, results from scientific labs and medical experiments must be refined and behaviorally informed to ensure the right interpretation and compliance of citizens.

To conclude, successfully mobilizing collective action continues to be a difficult and complicated task for policymakers. Persistent lack of concerted actions by individuals leads to a failure to reap the benefits of public goods. In fact, most plans share common assumptions regarding how people will actually behave and to what extent they will comply with the guidelines, safety protocols and procedures. Essentially, this is determined by how individuals will behave and act vis-à-vis simple behaviors and actions that are usually performed in a very automatic, fast, and intuitive ways. Moreover, the problem is how to get the “underreactors” to behave in a more socially responsible and reciprocal way and be socially responsible. Concurrently, another problem is how to get the “overreactors” and emotionally drained individuals to keep taking the same level of precautions and measurements even when there is no risk of being infected; while simultaneously, ensuring that they are not negatively affecting their mental health and well-being. At the end, inducing fear and threat could have more detrimental consequences on individual’s wellbeing, productivity and emotional state; and as such, is not a constructive way for governments to encourage the right behavior. “Where is the line between reasonable precaution and panic[7]? …Where to strike the balance? and how to induce an attitude of trust, reciprocity, and social responsibility that promotes collective action? are the main takeaways.

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