New Yorkers Are Exhausted By The Pandemic—And That Could Make Them Less Willing To Stay Safe

Sean Carlson: Let’s start with this group of New Yorkers that is suing the city over its vaccine mandate for in-person businesses. Of course, this mandate is meant to protect the public from death and disease. Can you tell us, from a psychological perspective, if that’s surprising to you?

Dr. Packer: It’s surprising that it’s risen to the level of a lawsuit, but it’s absolutely not surprising to me that people are frustrated and angry. It’s perfectly understandable.

When you think back two or three months, it was a time of significantly more hope and optimism, right? It seemed like we were coming through and entering a new, better stage of the pandemic. The vaccine rates were going up, and the rates of illness and hospitalization were going down, especially in New York City. Things were opening.

What’s happened since then is that vaccination rates have stalled out a bit, and the delta variant of COVID is back on the rise.

In response to that, policymakers are making adjustments and advising people to put their masks back on and tighten up. But that’s very frustrating, and to some extent, there’s a bit of a loss of hope.

You say one of the psychological factors at play here is something called “reactance.” Can you tell us what that is?

Sure, reactance is a psychological phenomenon that occurs when people feel like they’re being ordered to do something. Psychological studies over the years have shown that when people feel like they’re being ordered to do something, it can actually backfire. So, if you tell someone they should put on a mask and they feel like it’s an order, then they’re actually less positive toward wearing the mask perhaps than they were before. It’s a real problem.

Leaders need to start doing a better job of helping people anticipate that there are going to be setbacks.

Opposition over masks and vaccines tends to split across political lines. That’s what we’ve been seeing over the past year and a half. Is there any neuroscience literature that tells us about how our political identities could influence how we process information?

Absolutely. A large theme in the book we have coming out is about identities. They can be political affiliations, but it could be a national identity, your occupation, your gender or your race. These identities provide a type of lens through which you experience, process and make sense of the world.

If you’re dividing up a nation along political lines, that means you’ve got people on the left looking to the Democratic party and you’ve got people on the right looking to the Republican party to make sense of it.

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It’s as if to some degree they’re living in different worlds, and it’s made worse by the fact those identities are oppositional.

So if someone on the left says, “well, you should do this,” and then someone on the right might say, “well, I’m not going to do that” — not because I don’t think it is a good idea, but because you told me to. Again, we get back to the reactance effect.

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Do you think emotional and mental fatigue can influence collective action?

It’s a really great question in this case. I think we are all tired. I am. I’m sure you are as well. A major part of the emotional problem we’re experiencing right now has to do with the fact, as I said before, that we seemed to be on a more positive trajectory just a couple of months ago.

One of the reasons it’s so frustrating is that this is such a changeable dynamic. Yet if we learn nothing else from COVID, it’s that our understanding keeps shifting–whether that’s the medical understanding of how the virus works, whether it’s our understanding of how people are going to respond or whether it’s our understanding of vaccine efficacy.

So policymakers are continually having to change the guidance and the regulations. Leaders need to start doing a better job of helping people anticipate that there are going to be setbacks. This is a long arduous process, and yet there’s still light at the end of the tunnel.

Because without that hope, it’s incredibly difficult for groups of people to feel a collective bond around a challenge and work together on it.