We have all heard at least one or all the following being said:
- “The pandemic is not real.”
- “Covid 19 is a government led agenda.”
- “This is not a pandemic, it is a plandemic – the world’s richest are trying to take control of us. It is a global reset. Don’t be fooled by the scientists, they’re part of the plan.”
- “The vaccine actually contains a microchip with which Bill Gates intends to track us.”
Over the past month I unknowingly entered a rabbit hole of anti-pandemic propaganda. Memes, status warnings that people had put out to others through social media on what they refer to as the Covid illusion. My shock and bewilderment was quickly replaced by confusion as I waded deeper into this sea of distorted reality continually being manufactured by people all around the world, people from all along the wealth, religion and education spectrum. The various iterations of this denialism include Covid-19 not being a pandemic because it is not as bad as the Spanish flu, or that there is no pandemic because it’s not real at all- rather, a fantasy, an illusion created either by governments around the world or the world’s richest people, as a means of coercion and ultimate control over humanity.
As a psychologist I was left with a number of questions:
- How are we to make sense of this?
- How and why do people come to believe this narrative so avidly that it becomes their main and only version of what is unfolding in the world today?
- Why do they so ardently resist the reality of Covid-19?
- Is it possible that some people, to some degree, have lost contact with reality?
- What makes this version easier to believe, despite any and all evidence to the contrary?
I aim here to develop some kind of work in progress – an evolving understanding towards some kind of insight into why there is such opposition to our current reality. My aim is not to diagnose or to judge, but to do the only thing that seems to be helpful – to try and understand.
From a cognitive behavioural perspective, one might suggest that people who deny that the pandemic exists or deny its severity have been subjected to polarized information. A selection bias of sorts, formed and perpetuated by filters through their online activity. What I mean by this is that whatever you search for or watch and read online creates an automatic content stream that will continue to deliver similar content to you. Over time, this effectively reduces your exposure to objective information and aligns your news-feed with content biased in one direction or another. Anyone who has watched the Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ will know what I’m talking about here.
The pervasive nature, and frankly reckless behaviour of individuals, like refusing to wear masks and thereby endangering the lives of others, speaks to something fundamentally deeper and more complex than simple stimulus and reaction formulations of human behaviour. Let us start with the most important question we can ask: “What is the psychological function of this reaction to the pandemic?”
The current situation in the world is frightening. And even more to that, it’s all very much out of our control. Catastrophic events out of our control evoke very powerful feelings of helplessness which in turn threatens to overwhelm one with unacceptable levels of anxiety and dread.
As children, when our minds are impressionable and vulnerable, and still unequipped with more sophisticated ways of protecting ourselves from painful feelings, a basic and universal way that we cope is by “not knowing”. That is, relegating that which causes us emotional distress, to the far reaches of the mind into a state of unawareness – into unconsciousness.
The problem occurs when, that which we have made unconscious by virtue of repression, is stimulated by a bit of reality – i.e. when we inadvertently bump into something that reminds us of what we’ve tried to repress. We are then forced to institute defences that keep whatever painful feelings and sometimes memories we can’t bear, locked away outside of our awareness. One such defence which we acquire early on is denial. This is when we simply refuse to accept something that’s happening. Rooted within this defence is the pre-logical conviction that, “if I don’t acknowledge it, it isn’t real”. Often, during events that stimulate profound amounts of anxiety, such as the death of a loved one, our knee jerk reaction is denial “No! You’re lying! It can’t be true!”. Therefore, in the face of the surge of anxiety that comes with the helplessness of being caught in the midst of a pandemic, it makes sense that denial is rife. However, this is only one aspect of the phenomenon we are witnessing.
A second speculation may involve the regression to the need to preserve infantile omnipotence. Omnipotence is a defence mechanism developed in early childhood. It is a normal developmental curve that allows for children to feel a sense of control over their environment, when in fact they are very much dependent on caregivers who are not within their control. When children are faced with an experience that leaves them feeing insecure, vulnerable or unable to cope, for example, when they experience caregivers who are emotionally unavailable, children develop a sense of internal grandiosity that essentially tries to internalise control i.e. “I am in charge” “I can do this by myself, I don’t need anyone’s help”. This sense of grandiosity allows for emotional regulation and a reduction in overwhelming anxiety.
Developmentally children generally transition from this stage of omnipotence into accepting that their parents have greater control and can be relied upon, and ultimately to accepting the more difficult but more mature reality that even their parents don’t have complete all encompassing control. The realisation, that no one has complete control is far scarier, yet more accurate interpretation of reality.
Our sense of omnipotence is carried through childhood into adulthood in differing degrees. A healthier example is when we convince ourselves that we can do anything we put our minds too. Whilst this is encouraging, is still a fantasy because we often don’t fully acknowledge our own personal limits. In contrast, when we believe that most or all experiences are as a result of our own power, actions or control, we are using an earlier, less mature version of the omnipotent defence mechanism. This is because when we hold onto this version of reality, we are disavowing any acknowledgment of our own needs and vulnerabilities and instead become preoccupied on what we can control in order to feel more secure. In adult relationships this often translates to difficulty in being able to be vulnerable with partners or difficulty being able to trust others.
The pandemic has, for most, forced us to acknowledge that aspects of our lives we once felt in control of, are not as much in our control as we believed. Government mandated lock downs and public health guidelines have required us to relinquish elements of our daily routine (aspects that we believe we had full control over) in an attempt to create safety for the general population. Our ability to relinquish our personal control, and to trust a higher authority requires a kind of surrender. A realisation that we are not in control, and accepting the more frightening reality – that even the government or health experts are not
fully in control over this external threat. This is a very difficult reality to face and for many it is overwhelming. Instead, reclaiming a sense of personal omnipotence through believing they know an alternative narrative, a sense that, “I know what is really going on here, this is a conspiracy theory” or “I can see the bigger picture, I know what’s happening behind the scenes portrayed by main stream media” re-establishes a sense of psychological equilibrium, lowers anxiety and increases a sense of personal safety.
One can therefore understand that by unconsciously adopting a position of denial and/or omnipotence prevents someone from having to contend the very difficult truth that we are living through something unprecedented, frightening and chaotic. What one could argue is happening for pandemic denialists is that individuals are unconsciously unable to deal with the psychological burden, the reality that the pandemic renders them vulnerable, not in control and at risk. If we can distort reality into a narrative that belies external reality, we are effectively circumventing our psychic vulnerability and instead substitute it with a more reassuring sense of internal satisfaction, omnipotence, therefore safety and control.
As a final thought, pandemic denialism has a second knock on affect, the abolition of personal and social responsibility in the interests of the well being of others. If we are to believe that the pandemic is not real, then we need not follow the guidelines set by health professionals or government. We tell ourselves that doing so would only be playing into their master strategy and because “I know better, I shall not comply”. It also means that you don’t need to worry about the current health (and mental health) threat to front line workers, the elderly or more medically vulnerable who are passing away at alarming rates from this virus. Avoiding these harsh and psychologically uncomfortable truths makes us feel personally less vulnerable to contracting and becoming victims ourselves and less convicted to change our personal behaviour through adhering to social guidelines.
What might explain the ubiquity of this phenomenon?
As we are pro-social creatures, we find groups that we align with, that in turn, validate our identity and actions. This is called social identity theory and it highlights the ways in which as individuals we find groups that share our thinking, our beliefs, our value systems. In doing so we feel connected to a larger whole that provides a sense of psychological security and belonging. When we find a group – we stick with it! We have seen this played out in good healthy ways, like through notions of nationhood or football club allegiances and we have seen this play out in unhealthy ways, through cult mentality or as explanations of collective cultural or religious violence justified on ideological differences that divide one group from another.
In this case, those who deny the severity and/or existence of the pandemic find one another online. They are connected to a larger group to which they find a sense of belonging and affirmation of their beliefs and subsequent actions. A key component to social identity theory is that the groups survival depends on the blocking out of anyone who threatens the group itself. In this instance, any form of information or media that may challenge their ideologies. In many instances those who deny the pandemic are likely to say that don’t read “mainstream media” and only refer to trusted sources. Scientific, accredited academic journals, government statistics, and even hearing peoples lived experiences are all discredited as being unreliable sources. Only information from within the group is seen to be valid and accepted and in this way perpetuates existing ideologies and reinforces belief systems.
So how do we engage with this?
- Try to understand that this kind of denialism has a function and a meaning within each individual.
- Try to understand where they are coming from instead of confronting them head on with the factual reality, a reality which they already cannot bear.
- Try to listen to them, and engage with their subjective reality as to why believing that this is true is important to them.
- Accept that for the most part, you might not be able to avail reality as it stands to many denialists. Over-engagement may only cause further division and frustration. So know when to step back and focus your energy elsewhere.
- For mental health professionals: As The Lancet (Vol. 369, November 2020) highlighted, psychology and psychoanalysts in particular, have a role to play in combating medical non-adherence through creating an understanding of its origin and meaning. Contribute your insights and voice to this situation.
How do we ensure we don’t fall into one-sided thinking?
- Try as much as possible to critically assess where your information is coming from. Ensure sources are credible through peer reviewed journals or papers or articles which have all undergone rigorous validity checks.
- Engage with sources that have been written by professionals in their field, eg. epidemiologists or even better, a collaboration of professionals across industries.
- Explore divergent sources: read arguments that counteract your own position in an attempt to remain open to different viewpoints and try to understand them.
- Learn about cognitive bias! How cognitive bias impacts your thinking and behaviour and which specific biases you may be more susceptible to personally.
By Tamryn Batcheller-Adams, Psychologist.
(M.A Diss, Psych; M.A. Psych, Wits)
Edited and reviewed by Dr Coenie Hattingh, Neuropsychologist.
(P.h.D. Neuro; M.A. Neuropsych; M.Sc.Med Neuro, UCT)
References and further reading:
- Bardon, A. Coronavirus responses highlight how humans are hardwired to dismiss facts that don’f fit their worldview. The Conversation, June 25th 2020. Available from: https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-responses-highlight-how-humans-are-hardwired-to-dismiss-facts-that-dont-fit-their-worldview-141335
- de Groot, S. In denial over Covid, but pretending we not. Sunday Times Live, article 10/21; 9 December 2020. viable from: https://select.timeslive.co.za/ideas/2020-12-08-were-in-denial-over-covid-but-pretending-were-not/
- Funke, B & sanders, K. Lie of the year: The downplay and denial of the coronavirus. Medscape, commentary, December 16, 2020. Available from: https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/942736
- Miller, B. Science denial and COVID conspiracy theories: Potential neurological mechanisms and possible responses. JAMA November issue: 2020; 324(22):2255-2256. Available from: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2772693
- Ratner, A. Psychoanalysis in combatting mass non-adherence to medical advice. The Lancet. Vol 369, November 2020. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/action/showPdf?pii=S0140-6736%2820%2932172-3
- Rott, N. COVID-19 Denial still rampant in some coronavirus hot spots. NRP, November 19, 2020. Available from: https://www.npr.org/2020/11/19/936248527/covid-19-denial-still-rampant-in-some-virus-hotspots