In 2020, many of us are used to starting the day with grim statistics, such as the total number of new infections, total deaths attributed to COVID-19, and information about new hotspots across the country where the virus seems to be out of control.
Living in the age of the coronavirus can feel like being trapped in a never-ending nightmare, but most of us will grow numb to these statistics over time. People can only take so much bad news before they start to tune out this kind of information entirely. This might help explain why so many people are leaving the house without their face masks.
As we enter another month of the pandemic here in the U.S., psychologists have been studying the long-term effects of what it’s like to live with the constant threat of disease.
Numb to Statistics
Elke Weber, Professor in Energy and the Environment, and Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, talks about how the human brain is conditioned to recognize change. All those coronavirus statistics, as alarming as they may be, can start to lose their effect on the American people as time goes on because there is no “change” for the brain to recognize.
Professor Weber says it’s akin to living in a war zone for months on end. You may jump the first time you hear gunfire, but after six months of constant shootings, you may start to look the other way.
Unlike a war zone, however, the enemy is invisible. It’s hard to channel that fear and anger if you don’t have a tangible target to direct it towards.
When dealing with an invisible threat, there’s a good chance our fight-or-flight instincts won’t kick in. Our brains aren’t designed to freak out or panic when someone breathes on us, touches our hand, or refuses to wear a face mask. Even as we try to remind ourselves that the virus is real and dangerous, it doesn’t always feel that way when we are out in public, especially when hanging around our loved ones, colleagues, and other familiar faces.
COVID-19 and Climate Change
Humans seem to be reacting to the pandemic as they do to the threat of climate change. Both are large-scale problems that can be invisible to the naked eye. Rising temperatures, major storms, and lasting droughts are cause for concern, but most people go about their lives without dreading the effects of these trends, even if they could result in a natural disaster down the line. It’s something that lives in the back of our minds, but it’s usually not our number-one priority as we go about our daily routines.
The same is becoming true of the coronavirus. For many of us, life must go on, and living with the constant threat of disease is just too exhausting, Weber says. We are all anxious to get back to the way things used to be when everyday tasks didn’t come with life-threatening risks.
Some of us may turn off these concerns as we go about our business, but that’s no way to fight a pandemic.
How to Get Your Patients to Pay Attention
Professor Weber also says our brains aren’t designed to handle large figures, even if close to 150,000 people have already died of COVID-19 in the U.S.
Coming to terms with that kind of information can be a challenge for many individuals, considering most of us think on a much smaller scale. That’s why a news story featuring statistics may not get as much attention or interest as a story about the death of a local member of the community. As humans, we tend to respond to stories and ideas that feel personal and relevant to our everyday lives.
Weber suggests reframing this information in a way that makes more sense to your patients.
For example, instead of citing the latest infection statistics, we can describe the pandemic in different ways. Instead of 150,000 people dying, it’s the equivalent of an entire city getting wiped out, such as Paterson, NJ, Waco, TX, or Pasadena, CA.
Weber suggests using a local destination as a reference. This will help your patients put this information into perspective, instead of dealing with larger-than-life figures.
With around 1,000 people dying each day, the pandemic is also equivalent to around 8 to 10 passenger planes going down every single day, assuming each plane holds around 85 to 100 passengers.
The pandemic has already killed one out of every 2,000 Americans. If we look at our social networks, many of us know that many people, so, in a sense, the pandemic has statistically killed at least one person in everyone’s life.
Use these tips to help your patients grasp the severity of the situation. The pandemic may be antithetical to traditional ways of thinking, but rephrasing this information could make all the difference.