Robert D. Mather, Ph.D.

The Conservative Social Psychology Blog
COVID-19 and Concepts from Social Psychology: Emotional Contagion, Social Dilemma, and Psychological Reactance


There are several social psychological concepts that are relevant to the current COVID-19 Pandemic. Here I will discuss emotional contagion, social dilemmas, and psychological reactance.


Emotional contagion: The rapid spread of emotions through a social network or crowd. For example, in 1938 Orson Welles did a radio broadcast of War of the Worlds that frightened people across the nation. People heard the broadcast of an alien invasion and panicked. Some called the police, who were also panicking in some places. The fear spread from person to person. During this pandemic, the spread of fear has been on display for several weeks.

Social Dilemma: A conflict where what is in the best interest of individuals is different than what is in the best interests of the collective group.  Voluntary watering restrictions is an example. When a town goes on voluntary watering restrictions, it is in each person’s best interests for everyone else to limit their water usage while that person waters the heck out of their lawn that now looks even better compared to the lawns of their neighbors. But if everyone does that, the water supply will drop and the town will have mandatory restrictions. That’s exactly what happens, and city planners take the rapid increase of consumption into account when they declare voluntary watering restrictions. They know that they will quickly get to the mandatory restriction level with the new surge of usage. With the pandemic, it is in everyone’s short-sighted individual interests to carry on with life and let other people worry about self-quarantines. However, it is in the best interest of the collective group for social distancing and self-quarantines to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Psychological reactance: When people believe a freedom is being taken from them, they respond by performing the thing they think they aren’t supposed to do. One study sought to solve a graffiti problem and used two different signs. One said, “Do not write on these walls under any circumstances.” The other said, “Please do not write on these walls.” Two weeks later there was more graffiti on the wall of the first sign than of the second (and more graffiti on the first actual sign, too!). People are ornery suckers, and don’t take being told what to do all that well. That’s why many people, predicting large restrictions to their freedoms coming at the city, state, and federal levels, have defiantly increased their social contact with others during this pandemic.

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