Part Four – The Effects of Fear at a Time of Crisis

We should be doing more to understand the causal effects of mitigation policies on people’s emotional states - and how these feelings play into how they behave.

Published  1 June 2021

Part Four in Paul Dolan’s six-part series ‘Making Policy Better’

When the pebble of a policy intervention is dropped into the water, it causes a splash of impact and many ripple effects. Mandated non-pharmaceutical interventions (MNPIs) – or ‘lockdowns’ – in response to COVID-19 have affected the mortality risks of the virus and caused tidal waves of effect across many sectors and domains of human experience which will be felt for many years to come. One of the potentially most harmful longer-term consequences of the responses over the last year, not only by policymakers but amongst the media too, has been the manipulation of fear to encourage compliance with social distancing measures.

Fear produces intense negative feelings and is often accompanied by strong bodily manifestations such as raised heart rate and shortness of breath. These responses are adaptive but fear that is excessive and/or disproportionate has longer-term effects such as sleep disturbances and impairments of the body’s ability to fight infections. It can also lead to the onset of an anxiety disorder. Lockdown measures have been shown to make people more prone to psychological problems, including stress and post-traumatic anxiety. There is also some initial evidence linking fear to worse mental health outcomes during COVID-19.

Fear induces avoidant behavioural responses that seek to reduce the levels of fear being experienced. These defensive behaviours are instinctive and adaptive. Since fearful stimuli are usually dangerous, it is in our best interests to avoid them. Yet, there are also times during which our avoidance of frightening experiences can be maladaptive. In the case of COVID-19, fear of death and dying have – understandably – resulted in a general tendency to act in ways that seek to reduce that fear.

At the same time, fear of the virus has also resulted in the postponement of appointments for non-COVID-19 related medical conditions. The effects of lockdown on cancer care have been highlighted in Carl Heneghan and colleagues’ review of COVID-19 impact. This report shows how global lockdowns have caused widespread treatment delays and prevented the early detection of cancers. Fear is bound to have played a significant role in causing some of these impacts.

The frequency and intensity of the reported deaths from the virus, as well as the fear-inducing narratives that have accompanied these figures, have led to an inflation of fear. The more aware we are of the risks associated with a given phenomenon, the more fearful we become. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been exposed to daily reports of virus deaths. There has also been a general failure of both government and the media to place these figures into context. For example, they could have presented deaths as a percentage of mortality from all causes instead of using absolute numbers, which sound terrifying and lack a frame of reference. The frequency and nature of such reports have promoted hypervigilance in the population, which is known to prevent healthy adaptation to fearful stimuli.    

Indeed, the UK government appears to have consciously adopted the induction of fear at the population level as a tactic to increase public compliance with virus mitigation policies. The importance of increasing ‘the perceived level of personal threat’ was stated explicitly in a document prepared by the behavioural scientists on SPI-B advising the government in the UK. To achieve this aim, the government was told to use ‘hard-hitting emotional messaging’ and make ‘clear the actions they can take to reduce the threat’. It was acknowledged that such techniques ‘could be negative’. However, no further details on how to mitigate the harms of widespread fear were given.

Interestingly, experimenting with the public’s mood has been deeply contested in other contexts, such as when Facebook conducted a social mood induction experiment via its online platform. During this experiment, the social media company selectively limited 689,000 personal feeds of users to either be exposed to only positive or only negative emotional content from their friends. This mass online experiment was considered ‘scandalous’, ‘spooky’ and ‘disturbing’ to lawyers, internet activists and politicians alike. Yet, this example of mood induction is on a far smaller and more benign scale than the kind we have witnessed during COVID-19.

Increased fear levels also impact our preferences for different policy options because what we want is driven by how we feel. The more fearful of the virus people become, the more likely they are to select restrictive MNPIs without adequately thinking through their impact on other outcomes. This may help explain our failure to properly consider and act upon the long-term effects of closing schools, for example, and our general reluctance to challenge policies that focus solely on mitigating threats from the virus.

Many countries have employed tracking measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, we have a far less systematic approach to gathering data on the psychological impacts of the virus and the policy responses. Still, fear measurement tools can easily be developed and implemented if they are afforded greater priority. At a minimum, we should be doing much more to understand the causal effects of mitigation policies on people’s emotional states – and how these feelings play directly into how they behave. Manipulating public emotion is a dangerous and costly exercise that, just like the virus itself, will impact lives and livelihoods for a long time to come.

Click here to read Part Three, The Spillover Benefits of Lockdowns

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics and Political Science He is the best-selling author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After, and the host of the new Duck-Rabbit

Amanda Henwood is a PhD Student in the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at London School of Economics.

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