A Pandemic of Fear – the Psychology of Emotional Contagion

15 December 2020. Updated 16 December 2020.

by Galina Gardiner

“Quick – grab an extra loaf for the freezer – the shelves are bare!” Fear can cause us to behave illogically in response to perceived threats. It also spreads like wildfire. Whether through exaggeration or underestimation, disproportionate behaviour + spread = dramatic consequences.

Impact of fear

Fear of Coronavirus has led to extreme personal and governmental responses, from panic-buying and social distancing to school closures and lockdown. In Spring 2020, such measures appeared necessary. Their long-term effects – recession, neglected health, damage to education – were considered a price worth paying, though subsequent research indicates that the damage caused by lockdown may exceed that of COVID-19 itself (ONS, 2020; Chi et al, 2020).

The impact of fear on society should not be underestimated – studies have shown it to be the biggest predictor of compliance with new measures, over and above moral or political leanings (Harper, Satchell, Fido, & Latzman, 2020).Understanding fear – how, and why, it rips through society – is vital if we are to react proportionately to global events such as COVID-19.

What is fear?

The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines fear as “a basic, intense emotion aroused by the detection of imminent threat, involving an immediate alarm reaction that mobilizes the organism” (2020). This ‘alarm reaction’ involves the amygdala – a collection of nuclei in the brain’s limbic system – which, upon recognizing a threat, transmits messages that trigger behavioural responses such as fight or flight (Schacter, Gilbert, Wegner, & Hood, 2011). Importantly, it remembers incidents and forms associations: a toddler, stung whilst grabbing a bumblebee, quickly learns to avoid bees.

When the amygdala is activated, the neural pathway to our prefrontal cortex – the rational, reasoning part of our brain – is shut down (Hamilton, 2015). This makes evolutionary sense: our fear system can react more quickly to danger than our reason can. Fear overrides reason as a preventative strategy: better safe than sorry. Better to assume the dappled shadow is a leopard, and take flight, than to reason it out while being eaten. Better not to touch that door handle, just in case.

Over-reaction and fear contagion

Problems arise when the amygdala is over-stimulated, and we are ‘hijacked’ by fear. Our behaviour becomes irrational, disproportionate to the actual risk (Goleman, 2006). This is especially true of novel, unknown threats, leading to underestimation of more familiar risks such as crossing the road (Lu, 2014; Ali & Verma, 2020). And as a new disease, the risks posed by COVID-19 were initially uncertain. Estimates of death rates fluctuated wildly; the ease and mode of transmission were hotly debated. How likely were we to contract it? What would happen if we did? The gargantuan, invisible tentacles of the virus could be anywhere, so our fear systems assumed they were everywhere. Suddenly, things that were friendly, trusted, habitual, become threatening: laughing, shaking hands, opening a door. Constant news flashes, stressful shopping trips and social media forced our amygdalae into overdrive, resulting in continual ‘what if’ anxiety punctuated by frequent moments of fear (‘Aargh! She touched me!’). We were infected by a fear pandemic (Silva, Pimentel, & Merces, 2020).

Emotions are known to be contagious, both individually and collectively (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994). Our ‘better safe than sorry’ brains have evolved to be more receptive to negative, threatening emotions than they are to positive ones (Ben-Zeʼev, 2001). To add another layer of contagion, recent studies indicate that emotions spread via social media such as Facebook and Twitter (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2014; Ferrara & Yang, 2015).

Our instinctive knowledge of fear’s influence is used constantly by those in power to persuade people to spend, pay taxes, behave. Hence, it is unsurprising that SAGE’s behavioural scientists recommended engendering the spread of fear as a way of encouraging compliance to lockdown measures (SAGE, 2020). Mainstream broadcast and social media channels have been pillar-stones of this approach, infiltrating our lives instantaneously, continuously, and from all angles (Steinert, 2020). However, they have also used positive messaging to encourage a sense of common purpose, highlighting the moral and social positives of lockdown such as helping one’s neighbours and keeping the NHS free.

Times of crisis often bring people together. The difference with a pandemic is physical isolation. A mother’s intuitive response to a frightened child is a soothing hug, initiating physiological changes which reduce fear levels (Floyd, Pavlich, Dinsmore, & Ray, 2020). When firstly that hug cannot happen, and secondly it would serve to heighten the threat, fear is perpetuated. During lockdown, fear has been incorporated into our collective consciousness and given perfect conditions in which to flourish. Our behaviours changed almost overnight, and that same change enabled the fear to propagate indefinitely. A perfect storm.

Fear as a virus: can we fix it?

We have all, to some degree, been infected. If one compares fear to a virus and follows a Susceptible, Infected, Recovered model, our ‘fear’ susceptibility and infection rates were astronomical, conditions for recovery are poor, and future immunity is unlikely. In some ways, our global response was a giant amygdala hijack: a novel threat activated our collective panic-button, diverting us away from complex assessments of relative risk. Observations of worldwide lockdown patterns show that neighbouring countries’ actions impacted more on lockdown decisions than the actual spread of COVID-19 (Sebhatu, Wennberg, Arora-Jonsson, & Lindberg, 2020).

As we understand more about COVID-19 and attempt to return to work and education, how do we reverse our irrational fear? People are afraid to go back to work; many have so-called ‘Corona-anxiety’ (Silva, Pimentel, & Merces, 2020; Campbell & May, 2020). But we must emerge from our cocoons. Do we fight fire with fire (fear of infection versus fear, say, of losing our jobs), or would that exacerbate communal angst to unsustainable levels? Are carrots and ‘nudges’ better long-term options, challenging fear with “positive emotional contagion” (De Giorgio, 2020)? Whatever the answer, hopefully we have learned that fear can be as contagious as any virus, and should be handled with care.


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