A good friend says no to an outdoor barbecue. Your uncle doesn’t stop by when he passes your town en route to a vacation. A friend fails to mask up in your car. These are a few examples of how COVID-19 can spur misunderstanding and even conflict.
Such tensions in families and among friends add to the stress of managing life in a pandemic. In many ways, these kinds of conflicts boil down to differences between how scared we are or how safe we feel.
Past research tells us that people differ in the risks they find scary and seek to avoid, reactions that often are based on subjective factors and feelings instead of facts. COVID-19 is no exception. Many people who are at high risk for falling ill to the virus seem blithely unconcerned, while lower-risk people are terrified.
As a nation, we are more segregated into blue and red enclaves than ever. This means that most people don’t regularly encounter others with opposite views. Trump-lovers and Trump-haters rarely share the same space. So, when differences occur with people you love and trust over how to behave in a deadly pandemic — where geography and a political divide is not necessarily present — the conflict can be especially distressing.
Social science provides some clues for why this is the case. First, there is a natural tendency to believe that the way you see the world is the way the world really is, which psychologists call “naïve realism.” Most people don’t believe that their view of coronavirus risk is simply one of a range of possible perspectives. Instead, they believe their view is reality, and all other perspectives are clearly wrong.
This means that those who are extremely worried about the virus find it appalling and even dangerous when they see others go out and take what they think are unwarranted risks. Conversely, those who are willing to venture out may see people who don’t as being overly cautious or even nonsensical. Believing that the people close to us have incorrect views about coronavirus risks is disquieting; believing they are making decisions that could potentially harm our health is downright corrosive.
Closely related to naïve realism is the “false consensus effect” — the tendency to believe that others have beliefs and attitudes that are more similar to our own than they actually are.
Let’s say you have a friend whom you think has views similar to yours. If this person acts differently in a situation than you would, your first impulse might be to look for malign reasons to explain that person’s behavior. If that friend turns down your barbecue invitation, you might think that person can’t really be that scared of getting sick (since you’re not afraid), so you wrongly conclude that friend simply doesn’t want to invest in your friendship.
By the same token, if you — as the more risk-averse person — fail to appreciate that a friend perceives COVID-19 risks to be a lot smaller than you do, you might think that person’s failure to wear a mask in your car shows a lack of concern about your welfare or even an intent to harm.
There are ways to mitigate these misunderstandings, but trying to convince others of the correctness of your own position is not one of them. Few people like to have their perceptions of reality challenged. And telling people they are biased doesn’t work either; when people learn about biases, they are far more likely to believe that others are biased than that they themselves are.
Instead, a better approach starts with appreciating that family members, friends, and neighbors have genuine differences in how they assess and tolerate risks related to this disease. Their views are as real to them as yours are to you.
Recognizing that your uncle or friend is very frightened by the virus, for example, makes it easier to see that their behavior isn’t hostile or controlling, and is not really about you. Understanding the psychological basis of this conflict could help dispel the presumption of bad motives when someone acts in ways we think are irrational or dangerous.
Moving beyond resentment might enable us to be more communicative and creative about handling social connections in a pandemic. Rather than excluding the friend who just returned from Arizona from your barbecue, ask that person to wear a mask and BYOE (bring your own everything). Go for walks with a friend, but talk about social distancing rules first so there is no awkward confusion. Be clear about preferring to drive alone if you’re uncomfortable being in a car with your unmasked friend.
Navigating such conflicts is complicated when health and safety are on the line. But we won’t get very far unless we are aware that the views of risk held by others may be very different from our own.
George Loewenstein a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. Elke U. Weber is a professor of psychology and public affairs and the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment at Princeton University.