Jun 12, 2020

'Caution Fatigue' May Hinder Progress Fighting COVID-19

New research shows that social distancing mechanisms have prevented as many as 60 million COVID-19 infections in the United States and 285 million in China. These are impressive numbers that represent saved lives, less suffering and a lowered consumption of resources.

And yet. We are starting to see “caution fatigue” as businesses gradually reopen. While many businesses are incorporating social distancing practices into their new normal, there’s evidence that people are starting to relax when it comes to facemasks, standing at a distance and probably handwashing, too. Memorial Day seemed to be a psychological turning point for many people, as evidenced by crowded beaches, pools and parks.

Emotions Cloud Decision-Making

Experts say we are wired in such a way that it’s hard to remain vigilant and disciplined in these practices, even while the threat continues to be very real and perhaps getting worse. Our brains and nervous systems are built to respond to short-term threats, but not to stay in alert mode for extended periods. The psychologist and professor who coined the term, “caution fatigue” likens the physiological response to an AA battery being fully charged, then slowly drained. Jacqueline Gollan at the Northwestern University School of Medicine says that in the earlier months of the pandemic people may have been energized by the challenge. As time has worn on, motivation has decreased. Emotions like sadness, loneliness and depression can interfere with the energy and concentration needed to stay on track with safety protocols. This skews decision-making when it comes to evaluating risk.

How and Why to Stay Vigilant

Combatting caution fatigue comes back to the same advice that always benefits physical and mental health – eating properly, exercising, getting quality rest and sticking to an ordinary routine as much as possible. Focusing on positive motivations, like remembering that the protections are for the collective good of the public helps. Setting attainable goals and rewards provides a sense of control.

Other experts point out that Americans eventually adapted to increased airport security following 9/11, but acknowledge that regular mask-wearing is a tougher sell. Gollan points out that the virus threat is still abstract and prevention is a difficult thing to measure. If they don’t know anyone or see anyone who is sick, the threat seems less real. Communications professor Dorrance Hall adds that “in general, people do not like to be told what to do.”

Wearing masks and observing social distancing encourages others to do so by reinforcing these behaviors as norms. The new research on number of infections that have been prevented may help, too.