The psychology behind why some don’t care about COVID-19

Some say they do not take the coronavirus as seriously as they did a few months ago, here's why

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (ABC/WPDE) – Even as COVID-19 cases rise in record numbers in South Carolina, many along the Grand Strand say they aren’t taking the virus as seriously anymore.

Meredith Matson, a psychology professor at Horry-Georgetown Technical College, said there are two main reasons why people are getting tired of taking precautions: confirmation bias and compassion fatigue.

Matson said compassion fatigue is when people get tired of caring about something. She said months and months of following CDC guidelines can become too much for some people.

“Having to think about, ‘do I have my face mask? Have I sanitized my hands? Should I wipe my groceries down now or not?’ That’s really overwhelming and people get exhausted by it,” Matson said.

“I think people want to get back to normal, whether it be to get back to work and provide for their family or just to go and enjoy time with their friends, they want that. So they look for things to confirm that and they are biased at what they’re looking at. They look at people that are out at restaurants and doing things like normal and that confirms what they believe to be true,” she said.

She said some people might take the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and reopening of beaches and businesses as a signal that everything is okay.

“If we believe or want to believe that the virus and the immediate threat is over, we’re going to seek out confirmation for that, and it’s very easy to do that when everything is open and people are living their lives,” she said.

RELATED: ‘Wear face masks in public:’ SC health officials concerned over rise in coronavirus cases

She added many people seek familiarity in times of stress, and that could be another reason why people are flocking to beaches and businesses.

“If you think about it, it’s June. What type of activities are familiar for us? Going to the beach, doing things with friends, getting together for cookouts. We’re going to gravitate towards whatever’s familiar. Even if that’s maybe not the right choice because that gives us comfort,” she said.

She said it’s especially easy to put COVID-19 on the back-burner if you or someone you love hasn’t been directly impacted by it.

“It takes that personal impact to make it hit home and make it real for people because when they don’t see it immediately, they can have that bias of ‘everything looks fine and therefore it’s not a big deal anymore,'” she said.

She said the way people are reacting to COVID-19 is not too different from how people react to natural disasters like hurricanes; some take the storm seriously and evacuate while others choose to stay.

“If someone wants the hurricane to not be as bad because they need to go to work every day or have a family or a house they need to take care of, they might seek out that biased information to confirm whatever they really really want to be true regarding an oncoming storm,” she said.

But she said the key difference is that hurricanes have an ending date. There’s no end in sight yet for the COVID-19 pandemic. She said it’s difficult to ask people to change their lives and behaviors for a long period of time with no distinct expiration date.

“As human beings, we desperately want that. We want an end date. We want hard information, very tangible facts, and with something like this, we just don’t have it,” she said.

Last week, state officials said even as cases rise, they did not have plans to shut down again. Gov. Henry McMaster said mandates were “unenforceable, largely,” and that officials are relying on the citizens to take it upon themselves to the take the proper precautions.

However, with many people easing up on those precautions and choosing to believe the pandemic is over, ABC 15 asked both the governor’s office and DHEC officials if any additional steps are being considered, and if voluntary compliance is truly enough.

Calls and emails to Governor Henry McMaster’s office have yet to be returned.

This is what Nick Davidson, director of community health services for DHEC, said in response to our question:

“We’re putting out additional guidance and recommendations, videos as well. We want to make sure that people understand the need,” Davidson said.

Davidson said recommendations are coming, but probably not requirements. He said not everyone can wear masks and mandates are difficult to enforce.

This story was written by Anjali Patel, WPDE (ABC) Staff

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