Billions of people have been subjected to both of these experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the spring of 2020, we all went through flooding. We were suddenly confronting an invisible, lethal pathogen that was killing thousands across the globe and around us. The media bombarded us with harrowing images of patients struggling to breathe on ventilators.
Each new wave of communication since then has operated as a form of systematic desensitization. People around the world have been through so many alarms — both real and false — that many have been conditioned to stop fearing Covid-19 in the same way. And every trip outside the house that doesn’t result in people getting sick can serve to desensitize them further. At this point, it’s as if we have built up antibodies against fear.
The mood of the year might also be numbing people’s fear response. As the pandemic has dragged on, I’ve highlighted how many people are languishing in a state of emptiness and ennui. When you feel that “blah” or “meh,” your emotional reactions are subdued. The sense of impending doom that plunged you into action last spring feels more like a nagging headache this fall. Many are tired of being afraid — and just plain tired, too. If a Covid-19 variant falls in a community and no one is there to fear it, does it still make a sound?
This isn’t to say scare tactics have no place in public health messages or private conversations. There’s extensive evidence that appealing to fear motivates people to avoid dangers. It can drive them to quit smoking or wear seatbelts. But as intense as fear feels as an emotional state, it’s also fleeting, which can reduce its effectiveness at motivating continuing behavior change. For example, with efforts to reduce the spread of H.I.V., research suggests that while stoking fear initially increases patients’ perceptions of their H.I.V. risk, it actually reduces their condom use. (Counseling and testing programs are more effective in changing behavior.) You can sustain fight, flight or freeze for only so long.
Fear generally works best for motivating one-time acts, especially those that feel risky. Last year, fear was probably an effective way to motivate people to get their first vaccine shot. But it tends to be less effective for driving repeated behaviors such as getting a second dose and a booster.
Of course, the problem isn’t just being oversaturated with fear messages. Safety behaviors have become so politicized that many people are skeptical not only of vaccines and face masks, but also even of the threat that Covid-19 presents. For a fear message to get through and change behaviors, people need to be confident both that there’s a clear and present danger and that taking action will protect them.
Since 2020, scientists have made astonishing strides in learning how to prevent and treat Covid-19. Health authorities should be applying the same scientific discipline to communications about Covid. Some promising approaches include informing people that a shot has been reserved for them, inviting them to do their part in reciprocating the enormous sacrifices of health care workers and inquiring about what would motivate them to consider a vaccine.