Why are people responding so differently to the threats of Covid-19?

Mental Health

A: Covid-19 may remind people of death, which can bring out the best and worst in people.

Joining us today is Nerdy Guest Dr. Elise Tarbi, PhD, MBE, CRNP. Dr. Tarbi is a researcher and nurse with expertise in communication during serious illness. She also enjoys re-watching old episodes of The Good Place.

Terror management theory lays out that awareness of our own mortality can also cause debilitating dread. We manage this terror, often without even noticing, through embracing our core world views. These central beliefs offer a sense that we have value in a world that has meaning.

The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted daily reminders of death, meaning that we’re essentially living through a giant terror management experiment. As the theory would predict, displays of behavior appear consistent with deeply rooted essential beliefs. Some beliefs have led to beautiful behaviors, though many responses have been pretty ugly.

For instance, terror management scholars have found that the threat of death can cause people to cling to individuals who are similar to them and project hostility to “outsiders.” We can see this psychological tendency playing out as people and leaders seek to assign blame for the coronavirus, leading to increased hate and harassment of Asian Americans.

Conversely, the threat of death can also cause people to seek to increase their value, in order for their life and legacy to have an enduring impact – a quest for immortality in the face of mortality. We can see this tendency on display throughout our communities, as people engage in volunteer and advocacy efforts to support health care workers and scientists, and act on behalf of our most vulnerable citizens.

So, what do we do?

Individually, we can consider and acknowledge our own anxiety about death. Terror management studies have found that if people have practiced a different response, it can shape their behavior when they are reminded of their mortality.

Collectively, keeping our shared humanity in mind is key. We should remember that we are all working together against the same existential threat. First and foremost, we can’t turn on one another. We would be wise to continue to place emphasis on our responsibility, together, to take daily valuable actions to mitigate the threat of Covid-19.

If you’re looking for more information on terror management theory, which is rooted in the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, a good place to start is the 2015 book “The Worm at the Core” by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski.

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