nationalgeographic.com / Amy McKeever From prehistoric predator encounters to frantic toilet paper runs, our anxious brains can short-circuit when faced with the scary unknown.
Since the coronavirus began spreading across the world, we’ve learned a lot about the lengths to which people will go for a roll of toilet paper, a tube of hand sanitizer or a face mask. As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increases and states and countries lock down large gatherings or shops to promote social distancing, these uncertainties are driving the so-called “panic-buying” that’s emptying store shelves quicker than they can be restocked.
Panic-buying supplies is one way humans have coped with uncertainty over epidemics since at least 1918 during the Spanish flu—when people in Baltimore raided drug stores for anything that would prevent the flu or relieve its symptoms—all the way up to the 2003 SARS outbreak.
“When you’re seeing extreme responses. It’s because people feel like their survival is threatened and they need to do something to feel like they’re in control,” explains Karestan Koenen, professor of psychiatric epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
But what exactly causes us to panic—and how can we keep our cool in a high-stress time like a pandemic? It depends on how different areas of the brain play along with each other.
The evolution of fear and panic
Human survival has depended on both fear and anxiety, requiring us to react immediately when we encountered a threat (think: the lion around the corner) as well as being able to mull over perceived threats (where are the lions tonight?)
But the frontal cortex, which handles your behavioral responses, insists that we think the lion situation through first. When might we run into a lion again, and what to do about it?
Sometimes anxiety can get in the way. Rather than talking directly to the parts of our brains that are good at planning and making decisions, the frontal cortex gets confused by all the cross-talk between other parts of the brain that are determined to play out all the possible scenarios for how we might become a lion’s dinner.
Panic happens when the whole thing short-circuits.
While our frontal cortex wants to think about where the lions may be tomorrow night, our amygdalas are in overdrive.
“Panic happens when that more rational part of your brain [the frontal cortex] gets overrun by emotion,” Koenen says. Your fear is so acute that the amygdala takes over and adrenaline kicks in.
In certain scenarios, panic can be life-saving. When we’re in immediate danger of being mauled by a lion or run over by a car, the most rational response may be flight, fight, or freeze. We don’t want our brains to spend too much time debating that.
But listening just to the amygdala can come with serious drawbacks. In his 1954 work, “The Nature and Conditions of Panic,” Enrico Quarantelli, a sociologist who conducted ground-breaking research on how humans behave during disasters, told the story of a woman who heard an explosion and fled her house, thinking a bomb had hit it. It was only when she realized the explosion had occurred across the street that she remembered she had left her baby behind.
“Panic, rather than being antisocial, is a nonsocial behavior,” Quarantelli wrote. “This disintegration of social norms… sometimes results in the shattering of the strongest primary group ties.”
Panic doesn’t help much with long-term threats either. That’s when it’s essential for the frontal cortex to remain in control, alerting you to the possibility of a threat while also taking the time to assess the risk and make a plan to act.
How uncertainty can drive panic
But if we’re deluged with information and messaging during this pandemic, why are some people hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer during this pandemic while others are dismissing the risks and packing into bars?
Humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk in the face of uncertainty—and we’re often bad at it in different ways that cause us to overestimate or underestimate our personal risks.
Sonia Bishop, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California Berkeley who researches how anxiety affects decision-making, says that’s particularly true now during the coronavirus pandemic. Inconsistent messaging from governments, the media, and public health authorities—such as all the varied recommendations on social distancing—fuels anxiety.
“We’re not used to living in situations where we have rapidly changing probabilities,” Bishop says.
Panic and our psychological biases
Ideally, Bishop says, we should be taking an approach called model-free learning to assess our risk in the face of uncertainty. This approach is essentially trial and error: we rely on our personal experiences and gradually update our estimates of how likely something is to happen, how bad it would be if it does happen, and how much effort we need to put in to prevent it.
When we don’t have a model for how to handle a threat, Bishop says, many people turn to model-based learning, a framework in which we either try to recall examples from the past or simulate future possibilities.
And that’s where “availability bias” creeps in. When we’ve heard or read about something a lot—for instance, a plane crash covered extensively in the news—it becomes so easy to imagine oneself in a plane that’s crashing that one may overestimate the risk of flying. “It’s that ease of simulating that scenario that then overwhelms our judgements of the probability,” Bishop says.
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