Putting our behaviour under the microscope- COVID-19 under a behavioural science lens (pt 1)

Mere months ago, Australia was ravaged by ferocious bushfires. As our beautiful native forests were enveloped in flames, we watched as houses were destroyed, animals were burned alive and individuals bravely risked their lives to protect others and the country we love.

Despite the tragedy, we watched people around the world band together. Money and supplies, investment of time and open doors to those who had lost were offered without thinking twice. From bake-sales and charity runs to fundraising concerts, everyone wanted to do their bit to help. It really was a heartwarming thing to see.

Contrast this with the current situation. Mere months have passed, the fires are no longer a salient issue despite the many years that it will take the forests to re-grow and helping someone in need may very well be the furthest thing from most minds. Instead, attention has been redirected to the dreaded COVID-19. Now, instead of opening doors, banding together and looking out for our fellow man, people have gone to the opposite extreme- fighting over resources (just look to the empty supermarket shelves where the pasta, rice and toilet paper should be) and staring suspiciously whenever somebody coughs.

So how is it that we can act in such different ways to equally dangerous situations?

In my mind, the biggest differentiator is the element of the unknown.

When a bushfire is coming at you, you’ll know about it. It’s so all encompassing that there’s nothing else you can turn your mind to other than find a way to shelter or escape. It activates a more instantaneous fight or flight response. In contrast, the COVID-19 virus is for all intents and purposes invisible. You might guess based on symptoms whether somebody has it, but good luck working out if the person standing next to you is an asymptomatic carrier or someone in the midst of an incubation period.

And so, in as uncertain an environment as you can get, you look for things you can do to give you some sense of control. Just like the bushfires, the big problems seem too overwhelming so you redirect your attention to the little ones. You ask yourself the really important questions like:

If I’m stuck at home for two weeks, what will I need? (other than a solid internet connection for netflix)?

And then, you start to make a list. Because lists are one of the best ways to create a sense of structure and control.

You might not be able to get fresh food or takeout so what can you buy now that will keep? And so we see how people started to drain food supplies of canned goods and pasta. What I found more fascinating was the way people were unwittingly primed into purchasing as many hygiene products as they could. While there was some logic to the anti-bacterial gels that flew off shelves, it was the ingrained association with toilet paper that left me most amused, especially since COVID is a respiratory type virus and not one that would have you running to the bathroom and churning through rolls of toilet paper.

So why did people flock for toilet paper?

While it’s mere speculation, there have been countless studies about how we as human beings are primed. The inundation of discussion of disease automatically makes people obsess about good hygiene. And while this certainly explains the disappearance of hand wash and antibacterial gels, it may also lend itself to explaining why people are mass purchasing things like toilet paper, dishwashing tablets and other products associated with good hygiene.

So in line with the somewhat newly found obsession with good hygiene practices, what are some of the other biases that people could fall victim to?

  • Dread aversion – this basically describes how as human beings, we’ll do anything we can in our power to avoid feelings of dread because this foreboding negative emotion is one of the most powerful and overwhelming. And quite frankly, we just don’t like it!
  • Focusing effect – if all you hear about is COVID, you’ll start to pay more and more attention to it, starting or listening out for conversations and interpreting the behaviour of others as being the result of this. The danger here is that it can easily spiral into a blame game or even a get out of jail free card.
  • Framing – the media is 110% responsible for this one. Don’t get me wrong, from a medical standpoint, COVID absolutely is a contagious virus and like others (ie the flu) can be dangerous for the elderly, young or those with weakened immune systems. However, if we put the number of serious cases or even the number of deaths into context against other ways to die, or even consider the number when you take into account the large number of people not being tested who likely have it, it becomes a bit less overwhelming.
  • Groupthink – typically, group think is a situation where you start to think or do what your friends are doing. This is likely the reason why so many people flocked to the supermarkets for toilet paper…
  • Stereotypes – potentially one of the most destructive is the impact of social stigmas and labelling. Until/unless having COVID becomes the norm, it’s easy to look upon people who self-isolate or get diagnosed as lepers. The damage here is that the additional layer of isolation can make the person further retreat from contact, adopting new patterns of behaviour moving forward. 


The thing to remember through all of this is that we always have a choice in how we respond and behave. We may not be able to control a virus but we can certainly control our behaviour and actions towards one another.

We are more than our biases! We are more than our fears!

So please, choose kindness, choose compassion, choose to come together even if there are a few meters of physical distance between people. Remind those around you what it means to truly be human.


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