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Corona: The Psychology of Unreason - Column


The number of corona infections is increasing dramatically, and that has a lot to do with psychology. Three factors prevent people from doing the right thing. But someone can help us.

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Photo: Malte Mueller / fStop Images / imago images

"Most people have an overly positive idea of ​​themselves, their ability to influence their environment, and their own future."

The psychologists Shelley Taylor and Jonathon Brown (



Christian Stöcker, arrow to the right


Born 1973, is a cognitive psychologist and has been a professor at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences (HAW) since autumn 2016.

There he is responsible for the "Digital Communication" course.

Before that he was head of the Netzwelt department at SPIEGEL ONLINE.

It's probably hard to believe, but basically most people are too optimistic.

We like to believe, for example, that the future will not hold any illnesses in store for us, and that when in doubt, misfortunes will more likely affect others than ourselves. Another example: The older they feel, the younger they are, the younger they are compared to their real age will.

This is called "youthfulness distortion" in psychology.

These illusions are actually healthy: Those who look more optimistically into their own future often actually stay fit longer.

In addition, our actually exaggerated optimism and the illusion that we have much more control over our fate than we really do protect us, ideally from depression.

Four factors that stand in our way

1. However, this

unrealistic optimism

puts us at risk when it comes to correctly assessing the risks that may be lurking in the future.

"It won't affect me" is a risky attitude in the case of a global pandemic.

And not just for yourself.

According to a two-week-old representative study, less than 20 percent of respondents in this country still find the current anti-corona measures "exaggerated" (PDF link).

At the same time, however, 42 percent consider it "extremely or rather unlikely" that they could become infected themselves.

The emotional assessment that the "perceived risk" is "(rather) high" has fallen from over 50 to 38 percent since March.

So people are actually becoming more carefree.

Anecdote beats statistics

2. Part of the problem is also the feeling that you have been limiting yourself for so long, often without ever having personally been confronted with a serious Covid 19 illness.

Personal experiences still beat statistics

by far when it comes to forming a picture of the world.

It's been going well for so long!

Anyone who has been masked through their everyday life for months without ever having had personal experience with the danger of the virus may lose the feeling of the currently growing danger.

Reports of severe courses, serious long-term effects or even deaths in younger infected people do not seem to change this.

From "nothing happened" becomes "nothing will happen"

In other words: the anti-corona measures that have been relatively successful to date have paradoxically made it difficult to maintain them.

"If nothing happened" is changed to "nothing will happen".

As a result, what the World Health Organization



pandemic fatigue


has been increasing for months

: The number of people who learn less and less about the virus, adhere increasingly less to protective measures and feel less threatened is growing.

3. In addition to these two factors, our healthy but exaggerated optimism and our cognitive problems dealing with probabilities, there is a third, very human one:

It is very difficult for us to view people we know and like as potential risks


Many people undoubtedly know this from themselves: this person, whom I know well and who does not show any symptoms, is certainly not contagious.

Do you feel caught out?

The result can be seen in the figures of the last representative study on the topic: For example, only one third of those surveyed stated that they had worn a mask at private meetings with more than 10 people - it was two thirds at professional meetings.

Half admit that they did not keep the minimum distance of 1.50 meters at larger private meetings - in contrast, three quarters say they adhere to the distance rules in the professional environment.

The risk of infection increases with mood

That is understandable: as a rule, it is better to get close to friends and relatives than to colleagues, and in the work environment you probably pay more attention to compliance with rules.

But it's also fatal: At the moment, the virus seems to spread particularly quickly and effectively where people gather privately.


Christian Stocker

We are the experiment: our world is changing so breathtakingly that we stagger from crisis to crisis.

We have to learn to manage this tremendous acceleration.

Publisher: Karl Blessing Verlag

Number of pages: 384

Publisher: Karl Blessing Verlag

Number of pages: 384

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Unfortunately, people you like can be just as contagious as those you only briefly know.

In addition: the risk of infection increases, so to speak, with mood.

Alcohol, loud conversations, hearty laughter, close groups - all risk factors.

Become an ambassador of reason

The combined, currently very dramatic effect: At the moment, the number of infected people seems to be developing exponentially.

This means that the curve of the Corona cases rises more and more steeply to the right.

And that is very threatening - when the number of more than 11,000 cases doubles again in the seven days from October 23rd to 30th (as it did between October 15th and 22nd) and in the week then again, then we would be at 44,000 cases at the beginning of November.

A week later at 88,000.

And so on.

That should actually be a good reason to cancel the planned Halloween party.

We can still flatten the curve again, but there isn't much time left.

4. That is the essence of exponential growth: at first little seems to happen, and then suddenly everything happens very quickly, and we can hardly imagine it.

Unfortunately, all of this has the consequence that the likelihood of even stronger restrictions will grow in the next few days and weeks.

However, there is one psychological factor that may still help us:

social norms


We can get each other to do the right thing, according to a survey that appeared in Nature in April: "Social networks can increase the spread of behaviors that are both harmful and helpful during an epidemic, and this one Effects can spread through networks of friends, friends of friends, and even friends of friends of friends. "

So we can all become ambassadors of reason at any time.

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Source: spiegel

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