In 1990 during the AIDS epidemic, psychologist Phillip Strong penned an essay on a new model for “Epidemic Psychology.” He outlined a descriptive framework of what he believed happened to the human psyche during mass disease spread. During the Black Plague and the AIDS crisis, he posited, there were concurrent psychosocial epidemics of fear, panic, suspicion, and stigma. The method of transmission for this collective distrust and uncertainty was communication itself. “The human possession of language means that the fear of such disease can be rapidly, even instantly transmitted (as through television) across millions of people and from one society to another,” he wrote.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has offered a rare opportunity to put Strong’s model to the test. In a new paper published in the journal Nature, a group of researchers find that Strong’s ideas were correct—and may put us into a Hobbesian war of all against all, if we’re not careful.
To assess whether Strong’s model held during the pandemic, researchers analyzed 122 million tweets from January through December of 2020. They found that Americans were cycling through a string of emotions that closely mimicked those originally identified in Strong’s paper. The first is what he called a “collective disorientation,” or inability to determine the importance of a new disease. The second is a fear and paranoia that turns everyone and everything into a potential vector of the disease. A final facet is about taking action and how people resolve to respond to the disease, which often involves some flavor of moralizing that negatively impacts certain groups.