How many times a day do we hear the word “coronavirus”? For each of us that term is accompanied by a burden of different thoughts, attitudes and emotions, however, our behaviors in large-scale social emergency situations tend to follow the pattern of the group. So, in this case, how are we acting? This small article summarizes some of the reasons why social hysteria has been generated, what have been the best mechanisms of awareness and what social engineering can contribute to reduce the problem.

Social hysteria

On 31 January 2020, the first case of coronavirus was recorded in Spain. This incident monopolizes the news at national level and represents something disturbing but anecdotal for our daily routine. From February 28, 2020 the number of affected begins to increase and the concern about contagion increases. The virus becomes part of our recurring thoughts. But we may wonder why, with 40 people affected, the phenomenon of collective hysteria and excessive consumption of food in the supermarkets began to occur, instead of beginning progressively to accompany the rise in the number of people affected by the virus.

This phenomenon is due to the fact that people do not perceive numerical scales and natural phenomena on an objective scale, but on a logarithmic one.

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As the graph above shows, our concern about the problem increased considerably when the first cases began to occur in Spain. As those affected increased, our perception of risk increased exponentially. The effects of such hysteria are those we all know: overcrowded supermarkets and people with bags on their heads. However, as the graph shows, social concern is not going to increase with the number of cases, but will remain at stable levels despite the fact that the number of affected people will skyrocket in the coming weeks. This is mainly due to two mental processes: [1]

  • We do not assess a threat in numerical terms but in diffuse terms, i.e. “I am safe”, “I am in danger” or “I am in serious danger”. In Spain, the majority of the population is currently between the last two labels.
  • We do not deal well with the possibility: beginning to have a 1% chance of being infected induces us to a disproportionate risk perception, thus increasing it until it flattens out similarly to the curve in the graph.

Of course, to this must be added the upsurges produced by politically agreed measures, such as the closure of schools, the quarantine of towns or the establishment of the state of emergency. Looking to the future, collective hysteria will not last more than a week, since once it reaches its peak, stability will be maintained and gradually reduced. What will increase will be other types of social phenomena surrounding medical care, where emotions will generate conflict, worker blockades and many desperate behaviours.

Toilet paper and coronavirus

Why do supermarkets run out of toilet paper rolls?

Although it may seem a complex and strange social phenomenon, buying toilet paper responds to well-established principles in the field of social psychology: [2]

  • Scarcity and price: our perception of the value of a certain good is related to its scarcity and when seeing pictures of completely empty shelves of this product our mind made the following heuristic calculation:
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  • Social norm: many of our decisions are based on what the majority does. This principle, like many of those stated in the article, has a deep psycho-biological root with a clear survival function. It is what is called collective thinking and influences us considerably in our daily lives, even more so in a health crisis situation. If others are buying toilet paper they must be doing it for some reason.

Public Awareness: What’s Working?

With an exponential evolution in the number of infected people, it is essential to establish contingency measures against the virus: reduce social activities, individual hygiene measures, leave the house as much as possible, wait, we are Spanish. We have a problem.

Raising public awareness is one of the main pillars of the struggle worldwide, but how can the Spanish people be convinced to comply with this type of measure?

The advice from the political sector gives a first warning about the magnitude of the problem and a sector of the population has internalized many of its indications, but for the common Spanish this type of appearance is far from their routine, their problems, their life. However, what has proved to be extremely effective are the awareness messages in networks issued by health professionals. This capacity for conviction is due to a series of factors:

  • Issuer: Expert testimony is more convincing to the person who lacks such knowledge and at the same time generates a halo of authority [2]. Moreover, they are the main ones involved in containing them, which gives them a higher status in such circumstances.
  • Medium: the dissemination of the messages are produced by informal means of communication such as Whatsapp or Twitter generating a closer message. Most of them are forwarded by people from our close circle, which generates group influence on the individual. [3]
  • Message: Many of the messages were transmitted in audio form which encouraged the perception of reality and veracity of the testimony. In addition, collective diffusion mechanisms are being used, such as the hashtag #YoMeQuedoEnCasa, which allows for greater communication spectrum and generates the sensation of belonging to a collective movement.
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One of the lessons of the health crisis is this: informal awareness-raising based on the transmission of testimonies through informal communication networks works.

Beware of being overconfident

As we have already seen, our risk assessment is somewhat special. Not only does it follow a distorted scale of reality to reduce its exposure to potential threats, but the sense of security also affects it, in this case in the opposite way.

Once we stay home we may tend to forget to wash our hands, reconnect with our social bonds and ultimately do all the things we have been strongly advised not to do. Why? As we know, social hysteria will not last more than a week or so and after that period people will once again have a somewhat reduced perception of risk. This reduction may be positive in terms of handling the social and health system but we are in danger of falling into the safety paradox.

When we feel safe we are more open to committing risky acts. For example, by wearing a mask, we may decide to ride the subway when we would not otherwise have done so, or we may decide to go out for a drink with our friends because we are from a social group where the disease has little impact [4]. This type of behaviour should be avoided, and much more conscientiously when the first signs of reduction in the case curve occur.

Moral: Be careful about trusting yourself in these cases. The spread of the virus depends on our individual performance.

The conclusion

We begin with a question: How are we acting? The answer is simple: as you would expect. This health crisis is teaching us how much we know about collective behaviour and how much we still have to learn. Ask yourself: Am I incurring anything from this article? I am almost certain that the answer is yes.


[1] Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (2013). Choices, values, and frames. Handbook of the fundamentals of financial decision making: Part I (pp. 269-278).

[2] Cialdini, Robert B. (1993). “Influence :the psychology of persuasion” New York : Morrow.

[3] Fennis y Stroebe. (2010). “The Psychology of Advertising”. Psychology Press.

[4] Wilde, G. J. (1982). “The theory of risk homeostasis: implications for safety and health”. Risk analysis, 2(4), 209-225.

Miguel Ángel Liébanas Ortega

Social Engineer – Data Scientist

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