Shortly after the World Health Organization announced the coronavirus outbreak, my university requested students to pack our belongings and leave campus within a week. The announcement followed a wave of similar decisions made by other schools, responding to the accelerating spread of coronavirus across the world. Courses were suspended, dining halls quickly filled with to-go bags, and cardboard boxes piled up in our communal spaces; the atmosphere on campus turned frantic with confusion and fear. I stayed the full week before returning home, spending my last few days as a freshman on campus self-quarantined in my semi-packed dorm room.
At home, I was met with a similar atmosphere. Businesses were suddenly shut down, and the evidence of panic was visible in the empty grain products aisle at the grocery store under my apartment building. Frightful death tallies and morgue trucks parking across the city instilled fear, and in contrast, the erection of field hospitals and arrival of the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort gave hope.
Now that New York, along with many other states slowly reopens, we need to ask ourselves how to move forward. It is important to consider how life will look with COVID raging in the background. The pandemic’s human health crisis not only manifests in a daily death estimate, but also in job-loss, housing insecurity, and an increase in mental health problems — fear, anxiety, depression, stress, panic disorders, and social isolation.
Our own resilience, and the resilience of our society as a whole, will require us to adapt psychologically to the profound changes coronavirus introduced to our lives. As humans, the way we adjust to change relies greatly on our expectations and predictions for the future, which in turn, depend on our optimism and pessimism.
How Optimists and Pessimists Respond to COVID-19
Many of us have spent the past several months sheltering in place, subjected to a rollercoaster of information that at times supported our hopes and occasionally verified our fears. There have also been many disappointments, as predicted dates for the virus’s abatement have come and gone — spring, summer, now fall — meanwhile the virus persists. Many researchers believe that the way we receive information navigates a dichotomy between optimism and pessimism, trust and doubt. Optimism refers to positive expectations for the future and pessimism to negative ones. These positive or negative expectations dictate our response to stress and, as a result, have a profound impact on our mental health.
A recent study on the effects of coronavirus stress found that pessimism contributes to COVID-19-related stress and greater psychological problems. Pessimism was also found to contribute to maladaptive outcomes, like depression and anxiety. Optimism, on the other hand, was attributed to adaptive outcomes, such as coping strategies promoting the “management, reduction, and elimination of negative effects associated with stress.”
The aforementioned study deemed optimists better psychologically equipped to develop adaptive responses to the changes that the outbreak imposed on society. Pessimists, on the other hand, have a harder time coping with the stress of the pandemic and are more likely to develop negative mental health symptoms. During lockdown, I discovered that looking at the exponentially growing trend of cases and deaths increased my anxiety. In contrast, I found planning my day every morning — despite staying indoors — surprisingly empowering and soothing. At face value, it seems like we should all adopt an optimistic attitude to sustain us psychologically during the outbreak.
However, there is a reason why we should also be wary of optimism — its innate bias.
Comparative Optimism and Optimism Bias
A study surveying participants in the US, UK, and Germany discovered that people are more optimistic about their own chances of avoiding infection than they are of others’ It found that “people systematically rated the chance of getting infected with COVID-19 within 4 future time horizons lower for themselves” than for an average person similar to them. This sense of private optimism can be worrisome — it fosters an illusion of safety, or even invincibility from the virus, that can easily lead to the negligence of distancing guidelines, a leading factor in eventual COVID infection. Consider, for example, the myriad of college students that flocked spring break sites despite the CDC advisory and returned home as confirmed COVID-19 cases. They simply imagine that while others might get sick, they will not.
This sense of private optimism, also known as “comparative optimism,” made participants in the study think that they “judge reducing physical contacts as more necessary than others” and follow hygiene practices “more closely than others.” Nevertheless in practice, the more optimistic a participant was about not infecting others, the harder and less necessary they thought reducing contact with others would be, and the less likely they were to follow proper hygiene practices. Comparative optimism inflates and fuels our self-assurance, and in so doing, poses a breach in our efforts to keep safe from the virus; we imagine that we’re doing a better job than everyone else of following the rules.
Comparative optimism, in this case, acts as a dangerous bias. It nurtures a sense of assurance that your personal chances of contracting the virus are lower relative to your immediate community. Because there’s no basis for this optimism, it poses a great danger to personal safety.
Due to the infectious nature of COVID-19, a danger to personal safety implies a danger to public safety. Nevertheless, comparative optimism was most evident in “participants’ estimates of the probability that they would infect others if infected themselves.” This means that, besides making participants think they were unlikely to contract the virus personally, comparative optimism made them believe that they’re even less likely to infect others when contagious themselves. Considering how easily the virus spreads, this evidence is alarming for public safety.
How Pessimism Protects Public Safety
Another study surveying American participants supported the idea that comparative optimism is related to not complying with safety guidelines. In addition to private optimism, participants also displayed a pessimistic outlook regarding the health of the surrounding public. This quality of harboring dark predictions for public health is called “public pessimism,” and it was found to be strongly related to adherence with physical distancing.
Interestingly, public pessimism revealed beneficial implications for public safety, as it counters the potential negligence of precautions that optimism bias poses. Concern for the health of the community prompted adherence to distancing guidelines , as it urged people to take personal action to protect their communities.
A Sense of Agency
The difference between optimism and pessimism boils down to an individual sense of agency. Optimists tend to imagine a strong sense of control over their lives, while pessimists feel like they lack that control. By extension, optimistic individuals think they can make choices to reduce their exposure to the virus but lack the capacity to protect the public, i.e. feel optimistic about their personal chances while pessimistic about the chances of the public.
The aforementioned study surveyed participants in two rounds, first at the beginning of lockdown and second a month into lockdown. While at first there was no relation between public pessimism and a sense of agency, a correlation between the two emerged a month into lockdown.
The study attributed this result to a narrative adopted by many governments that encourages distancing precautions to protect the public. As Governor Cuomo of New York explained, “Our message is simple: I wear a mask to protect you and you wear a mask to protect me.” This narrative gives people some autonomy over lives in their community, urging them to protect themselves in order to protect others. Public pessimism yields compliance with safety guidelines, protecting both private and public safety from the danger intrinsic in an optimism bias.
Which Mindset You Should Strive for?
The reality is that we cannot yet control the spread of the virus, we can only hope to contain it, and we don’t know what the future holds. Staying optimistic seems like the best personal choice for your mental health, but optimism can also blind you to danger and place you in harm’s way. Optimism can give us a false sense of agency, but pessimism can leave us paralyzed and unhappy.
It is important to be realistic when it comes to what elements of life are actually under our control, and do our best to develop practices that protect ourselves and others. Some make a case for defensive pessimism, and there is merit in lowering our expectations to adjust to the age of coronavirus. Still, it’s too soon to tell how long it will take to truly contain the pandemic. Instead of waiting to see what will happen, we need to establish for ourselves a new normal — that attitude may be found in a hybrid of optimism and pessimism.
Navigating between Optimism and Pessimism
Research suggests that the sense of control linked to optimism is related to people’s happiness and well-being. We are adaptive creatures by nature, and panic during this uncertain and unsettled time might even seem unnecessary in a few months. Often, we adapt to new conditions by seeking to exert a sense of control over our circumstance. This might explain why I grew fond of planning my day in the mornings during the past lockdown.
After a month in lockdown, people reported lower levels of anxiety and “an increase in their sense of agency.” This adjustment accompanied a positive change in the well-being of participants, as their perceived danger of COVID-19 to their community diminished, even while they maintained stable happiness and private optimism. These results support the suggestion of the very first study, that “positive psychological resources, capabilities, and strengths such as optimism” are necessary for positive mental health amidst a crisis.
One way or the other, in order to prevail in this outbreak, we need to adopt both optimism and pessimism. While optimism gives us the confidence to assume a sense of control, pessimism assures that our bias isn’t fooling us. In a situation like a global pandemic, unpredictability is a given. We need to navigate through this uncertainty with pessimism and doubt, but stay optimistic that, slowly but surely, our lives will transition back to normalcy. However this applies to your personal life, making tentative plans and periodically checking their viability as time progresses, and we know more, can be a helpful tool to creating a new sense of normal — keeping you safe and mentally strong.