Fear, urgency and change
Do you have a spider phobia? Behavioral therapy – by which you gradually or suddenly expose yourself to the object of your fear so you become desensitized to it – works very well. Too well, in fact. In the case of the Covid health crisis and other issues where change is required, desensitization is a danger.
Did you stock up on pasta or toilet paper when they announced the discovery of the Omicron variant? Probably not. What changed since Covid first made its appearance? You’ve overcome your fear of it and have become desensitized because you’ve been exposed to successive waves of the virus. You’ve grown weary, and end up not reacting to warning signs any more. This phenomenon of habituation is an obstacle to fear-based communication strategies. Alarmist statements about HIV, for example, no longer have an impact on the rate of condom use.
Although fear can act to motivate us to take specific actions, it seldom works more than once. It may encourage you to get vaccinated, but you might drag your feet when it comes to the booster shot.
There are two strategies that prove to be much more effective than fear for embedding long-lasting change:
- Positive communication: “We’ve reserved a dose for you!”
- Relying on a community: In uncertain times, human beings copy what their fellow human beings do. Knowing that a certain percentage of your neighbors are already vaccinated will encourage you to follow suit.
Repeatedly triggering an emergency warning comes with its own risks: habituation and boredom.
by Adam Grant, (The New York Times, 13 December 2021).
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