Pandemic denial: Why some people can't accept Covid-19's realities
Posted August 16, 2020 4:00 a.m. EDT
Updated August 16, 2020 8:56 a.m. EDT
CNN — With so much information available about the severity of the coronavirus and the need to follow guidelines, some people still refuse to accept reality.
The denial manifests itself in many ways, whether that be refusing to wear a mask or attending large gatherings.
Using denial as a coping mechanism is not always a bad choice. Short-term, it gives someone the time to adjust to a situation. When it becomes a long-term crutch and puts others in harm's way, it can be dangerous.
There's also a psychology term called rationalism, which people often confuse with denial. It's a defense mechanism where people try to justify unacceptable behavior.
With over 30 years of experience in their profession, psychologists Eve and Mark Whitmore have spent recent years studying misinformation and confirmation bias. Eve Whitmore currently works as a clinical psychologist in Stow, Ohio, and Mark Whitmore works as an associate professor in the College of Business Administration at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What is denial and why do we deny things that are obviously true?
Eve Whitmore: Denial is a construct used in psychology to describe how people deal with reality constructs. It's not considered one of the more preferred mechanisms -- we call them defense mechanisms.
Mark Whitmore: Denial is a way for people to defend themselves against anxiety. When they're in periods where there's a lot of anxiety and it's perceived as a threat, then people develop strategies to protect themselves, their sense of security and safety. And one of these is simply to deny whatever the threatening source is exists. In this case, you would simply say, "Well the epidemic is a hoax. It doesn't really exist."
Denial sometimes gets confused with rationalization, which is when people try to explain away or diminish the threat of the source of anxiety. When people say, "Covid-19 is just another flu," they're admitting that it exists, but they're minimizing it and saying it's not as severe as everybody is saying.
Why do some people deny or rationalize?
MW: Whether you react to situations with stress and anxiety or you react more positively by figuring out how to deal with them has to do with your sense of control over those situations. When the pandemic was first announced, there was very little information and we didn't know what kinds of precautions we should be taking.
Since then, the pandemic has progressed. We've gotten more information about ways to protect ourselves and have some sense of control by the types of behaviors we engage in.
But back in March and April, we didn't have that much information and some of the information was contradictory, and that contributed to people's feelings of not being in control. Some people felt a lot of anxiety and stress, and at that point, we have to figure out how to deal with that so we can function. For some, that's creating a myth about the pandemic or simply seeking out information that will reinforce their viewpoint that it's not really as severe as people are saying.
How can being in denial or using rationalization be dangerous?
MW: Both denial and rationalization are considered to be maladaptive, meaning they don't help the individual adapt to the source of the threat. It can actually expose them to an even greater chance of whatever that threatening thing is.
In the case of the pandemic, you could become ill because if you're in denial, you're rationalizing the severity of the situation. Then you probably won't take the proper necessary precautions to protect yourself.
EW: We've observed people saying, "I want to get the virus and just get it over with." There are also people traveling across the United States to different states, even though it's not recommended, because they don't believe Covid-19 is that bad. They can be asymptomatic and bring it back to their own state.
We also heard people saying that they thought they were already exposed to the virus because someone in their family was sick with some undiagnosed illness and now they think it was Covid-19, and therefore they think they are fine because they should be immune.
Where do people learn these behaviors?
EW: These constructs develop in children and are typically reinforced by parents or guardians. By about the age of 6 or 7, a child is able to make sense of what's fact and what's fiction, but in our culture, fiction is reinforced, often with parents and children. You know that there's a Santa Claus and an Easter Bunny. Some of that is part of development and it helps children with fantasy, and fantasy can be a good thing. But sometimes, we see it can become extreme.
MW: The key thing is not so much Santa Claus. It's that as parents, we teach children to face decisions, not with facts but with belief or faith. As parents we did the whole Santa Claus thing, but we also taught our children about how to make decisions based on factual information.
When adults have been raised in an environment where unfounded beliefs were a part of their upbringing, they are much more likely to believe in conspiracy theories and hoaxes. They also tend to make decisions based on hunches and preconceived ideas and biases as opposed to using factual information.
If you have a friend or family member who isn't following proper safety guidelines because they're in denial or rationalizing, how can you help them?
MW: This also gets at confirmatory bias, where you create a bubble by surrounding yourself with people who believe what you believe, and you search out information that supports the way you believe.
That would help would be for a person to receive contradictory information, things that contradict their viewpoints. A person needs to be forced to face it and do something about it. This is best done in phases. Start out by presenting the individual with contradictory, factual information that's not so threatening along with what they can do to protect themselves.
Once they begin to accept it, then you escalate the intensity of the realistic information in stages until they more fully accept it and achieve a greater sense of control.
EW: You can also lead by example. They can see that you're wearing a mask washing your hands and keeping social distance. They can also see you following the mandated rules of your state.