July 30, 2020 by Jean
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was discussing when and how to get together with a friend, I was reminded of lessons about safe sex at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Then, we were told that if we had unprotected sex with someone, we were also having sex with all the other people that person had had sex with. Now I feel as though if I decide to share air space with someone, I am also sharing air with all the people they’ve shared air with in the past two weeks.
I quickly realized that people differ in where they find the balance between what feels to them like reasonable caution and what feels to them like unreasonable fear and that you have to take those differences into account when planning in-person interactions. When I was invited to an outdoor 4th of July gathering at a friend’s house, I found I needed to ask some questions before deciding whether to go: How many people would be there? Would people be wearing masks? In the end, I decided that it felt too risky for me. Because the gathering was outdoors and people could easily keep 6’ apart, there was no expectation that people would wear masks. And although the gathering was small (six people), I didn’t know who all these people had been sharing air with. Fortunately, my friend was understanding and invited me over for a separate visit (just the two of us, sitting outside with masks) a few days later, but the negotiation process felt a bit awkward. When I heard a story on NPR that likened these negotiations to communications about safe sex, the comparison resonated for me.
As I’ve entered into these conversations with friends, I’ve realized that my balance point between reasonable caution and unreasonable fear is near the cautious end of the continuum, and I’ve found myself thinking about the factors that shape our risk assessments. Here are several that I’ve identified thus far:
- Personality and Personal History – Some people are just less adventurous and more cautious than others. I’ve always had a tendency to be cautious, so it’s not surprising that I’m being more cautious than average about COVID-19. You can add to my generally cautious personality a history of being particularly careful about preventive health behaviors. I’m a person who took up jogging when I was in my twenties to try to prevent the kinds of cardiovascular problems my mother was experiencing in her fifties, so it’s in character that I’m also doing everything I can to prevent getting infected with COVID-19.
- Sense of mortality/immortality – Young people often have a sense of immortality that makes them much more willing to engage in risk-taking, and we have seen this in responses to COVID-19. As we get older, it gets easier to imagine our own death, and this can make us more cautious. On the other hand, a sense of being near the end of life can sometimes fuel risk-taking. There are stories about older people refusing to wear masks or keep their distance from others, saying, “If I die, I die.” A friend of mine has lived longer than anyone else in her family, and this may be part of the reason she is less cautious about COVID-19 than I am. (I think that, if I’m careful and lucky, I’ve got another good twenty years ahead of me.)
- Sense of personal vulnerability to COVID – How much risk people are willing to take during this pandemic is probably influenced by how vulnerable they feel to COVID-19. I generally regard myself as a very healthy person, but I also have an inherited genetic mutation that puts me at risk for blood clots. When autopsies of people who died of COVID-19 showed that blood clots were one of the deadly complications of this disease, I sat up and took notice, realizing that I am at higher than average risk of dying if I get infected. This has definitely made me more cautious.
- Work situation – The psychology concept of “cognitive dissonance” tells us that we have low tolerance for holding beliefs and behaviors that contradict one another, and we usually respond to those contradictions by modifying either our beliefs or our behaviors. Those who must go out to work each day, especially at jobs that put them at risk for contracting COVID-19, probably respond by becoming more risk-tolerant. (They can’t change their behavior, so they adopt beliefs that are consonant with those behaviors.) It’s easier for someone like me who is retired and mostly at home alone to believe strongly in the power of risk-reducing strategies like wearing a mask and keeping physical distance from others.
- Living situation – I think those who live with others have a different sense of what is risky behavior in face-to-face interactions than those of us who live alone. Those who share households have daily interactions in the household without face coverings, and this makes such interactions seem normal. For someone like me, who hasn’t had a face-to-face interaction indoors with another human being without wearing a mask for more than four months, face-to-face interactions, especially in enclosed spaces, without masks now seem strange and very risky.
Social norms may well be the most important factor influencing our beliefs and behaviors around COVID-19. In all social situations, human beings develop shared understandings about which behaviors are acceptable and which are unacceptable. As we interact with others, our understanding of what is normal is shaped by what others are doing and saying. When we interact with others whose understanding of what is acceptable and unacceptable is different from ours, we feel uncomfortable. In response to that discomfort, we can change our behavior to fit their expectations, negotiate a compromise, or stop interacting with them. This is how shared social norms develop.
In the pandemic, different social circles and different locales seem to have developed different shared understandings of what is reasonable caution and what is unreasonable fear. My own beliefs and behaviors have been reinforced by interactions with a circle of friends who are similarly cautious, but I have sometimes been startled by a much lower concern for safety when I venture further afield. Recently, I have seen photos online of members of my family engaging in behaviors that seem unnecessarily risky to me. These family members live in places that have higher rates of infection than where I live, and all of them either have heightened risks of deadly complications should they become infected or work in occupations that put them at risk for infection. Yet their posted photos show them interacting without masks or distancing. I imagine that such behavior is widespread in their location and social circle and thus seems to them like acceptable behavior. If I were to visit them, I think they would find my insistence on masks and distancing unreasonably fearful, just as their behavior strikes me as foolhardy. This would require a lot of communication and negotiation before we could share air.