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Coronavirus: how we react to risk and uncertainty

25 May 2020
Research

Coronavirus: alarming and reassuring news, objective data and personal opinions have been alternating in the media for weeks, making feelings of uncertainty and doubt prevail. How do we react in such situations? What could an optimal communication approach be? How can we describe the dynamics of fear? We discuss this topics with Prof. Giuseppe Pantaleo, Professor of Social Psychology and Head of UniSR-Social.Lab, the laboratory od Social psychology of the Faculty of Psychology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University of Milan, Italy.

 

“In these days of ‘coronavirus’, mass media showed us some extreme, contrasting reactions when facing a threat—reactions of fear, but also a surprising tendency to minimize the news. These are all well-known reactions to Social Psychology, a discipline since a long time focused on the study of social emotions, motivations, and behaviors. Under conditions of heightened uncertainty, the emotion we name ‘fear’ tends to rise in strength in proportion to the importance of the consequences of the instigator— the rapid spreading of the contagion. ‘Social contagion’ spreads quickly, perhaps even more quickly than the real one. As soon as we get further news and information, however, the situations changes: uncertainty is reduced by attempts at estimating the personal risk of contagion. The (subjective) risk can be quantified; uncertainty cannot. From a psychological point of view, knowing the risk is reassuring. Knowing, for instance, that the virus is not lethal, if not in specific cases, is surely comforting for the vast majority of us. At that logical junction, however, something paradoxical happens—a well-known effect in Social Psychology, straightforwardly predicted by J.W. Brehm’s theory of emotion intensity: Within a certain range, increased attempts at reassuring citizenship will augment the intensity of fear. In such a situation, it is better to convey just some bits of reassuring information, rather than insisting in repeated reassurance attempts. This mirrors the line established by the Italian Government, with the decision of changing its public communication strategy into ‘Just one single official briefing per day’ (such a decision, though somehow representing a progress, does not protect the citizenship from wild ‘social media’ communication and exchange). In any case, back to the theory, beyond a certain threashold strong reassuring news (clear, repeated, univocal) will not just lessen fear, they will make it disappear—with the intensity of ‘fear’ being substituted by new social emotions and corresponding behaviors: gags, jokes, puns, irony, etc. The intensity of fear, in other words, does not follow a linear path; it obeys a mathematical cubic function: fear will be high under uncertainty; reduced by some feeble but clear reassuring news; high, again, in the presence of mounting reassuring news—which, however, are still insufficient to contain it—; and eventually reduced by overwhelmingly strong, clear, and reassuring news.”

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