Ilmar Raag: Anatomy of the coronavirus adaptation ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Kairit Leibold

When public attitudes in a democratic country become guided, then in the next wave of the coronavirus, society will probably no longer consent to the same restrictions, no matter how they get communicated, journalist and film director Ilmar Raag finds.

Studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic have provided an interesting picture of the dynamics of public attitudes. 

This all fits perfectly with Abraham Lincoln's famous maxim from over 150 years ago: "You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

Let's leave aside the word "fool" here, and just talk about the impact of communication.

In the most general terms, the claim that people's immediate environment has a greater impact on their behavior than any form of communication, including propaganda, has been reaffirmed.

Principle of instant gratification

It is the principle of "instant gratification" that needed to be drawn from psychology when describing the changes in people during the COVID-19 emergency situation. 

Following this, people primarily strive for decisions which provide them with an immediate, satisfying solution. This principle does not in general reveal people's wisdom and analytical ability, but it is a reality which must be taken into account nonetheless.

For example, when I'm in a bad mood, I buy some chocolate – with this little treat, life quickly seems more beautiful. In the world of advertising, we can see the exploitation of this human feature in the commercials for fast loans, which always promise you money as soon as you require it.

Similarly, miracle cures are advertised, which claim you can lose ten or twenty pounds of weight in a miraculously short time. At the same time, people's behavior is not only driven by immediate pleasure and enjoyment, but also by, for instance, immediate fear.

In the first phase of the emergency, we saw how society embraced a fear through the information about COVID19. Don't get me wrong, I don't think anyone actually consciously wanted to fool people over the dangers the coronavirus presented. Rather than that, this was a scientific modeling of the spread of the virus under certain conditions.

The nation's crisis communications, plus most of the media, took this warning very seriously. The outcome was an atmosphere of anxiety which was extremely widespread through society.

In the second week of the emergency, 91 percent of the Estonian populace considered the situation serious. Fifty-eight percent of people wanted the restrictions put in place to be tightened. At the same time, only 4 percent of respondents were in favor of easing them. 

At that point, we actually had experienced only a few deaths related to COVID-19.

What followed reflects the paradox of this type of pandemic. As the restrictions as imposed certainly had had their effect, as a result, the public could not directly perceive the significance of the threat.

Considering the number of people infected in Estonia,  less than one percent of the population were people who had had direct contact with a sick, or even dead, relative. 

This means that the willingness to comply with the restrictions was based primarily on communication and social agreement. This is the communication effect, par excellence.

Unfortunately, this effect is typically short-term that may have significant drawback later. For example in politics, election campaigns are mostly designed for the short term effects in order to make people to vote for the right candidate.

In the case of Estonia, the pandemic risk assessment warned us, for example, that our healthcare resources could collapse, and hospitals would become overloaded. And we expected that.

However, the developments seen in Italy, or New York, did not reach us. Only on Saaremaa did the feeling of a more serious crisis arise. One can only imagine what the dynamics of public opinion would have been had the epicenter of the virus had been located in Tallinn, instead of Saaremaa. But did not set in.

Instead, the economic situation provided the signals of the immediate effects. A fall in income actually affected a far larger proportion of people than the virus. Likewise, the inconvenience of the restrictions affected almost everyone.

As a result, an information conflict emerged, where emergency policy and crisis communication were primarily aimed at the threat of the virus, but the immediate reality facing the people gave off other signals.

Studies have shown that even when people did consent to the emergency measures during the first weeks of emergency, then quietly, almost subconsciously, different details of real life began to come to the fore.

By the fifth week of the emergency, the proportion of anxious citizens who wanted to tighten restrictions further had fallen to a fifth of the earlier figure.

They now made up less than ten percent of the population. At the same time, supporters for relief from restrictions rose to make up a quarter of the population (from 4 percent to 24 percent.) And this all happened without any communication campaign.

Confirmation of self-deception

At the same time, another phenomenon known in psychology - confirmation  bias - deepened within the public information space .

Confirmation bias is a process whereby we begin to interpret signals from the outside world in accordance with our hopes and expectations.

I myself saw several references on social media to serious research articles, which was interpreted in opposing directions by different communities holding different attitudes in Estonia. 

Let us just remember the "dance of the masks" and their usefulness, which could only have arisen as the anxiety background of the first weeks of the emergency had receded.

A large number of video stories were also shared on social media, in which "dignified" people reveal a look behind the curtain of the pandemic organizers. 

Most of these stories could be refuted by any student who has studied the scientific methods of research for at least one semester, but all of this no longer had any meaning.

The cognitive dissonance created by the self-flowing path between official threat stories and people's immediate experience began to determine the change in attitudes.


It came as no surprise that when the emergency ended, it was immediately met with public approval. What conclusions can we draw from this?

1. Regardless of what the health experts think about potential developments, public opinion research demonstrates that the attitudes of more than half of Estonians have entered the next phase, where the impact of the virus is not assessed as being very high on a personal scale. Perhaps this backdrop of fear has fallen in vain, but it is still a reality emerging from research.

2. During the emergency, it was proven that crisis communication can achieve an information effect which lasts for a maximum of one month. However, for longer-term effects, at least some sections of the populace should receive direct feedback on the significance of the threat. In some ways, this is good news, because it suggests that no propaganda which does not rely on the real human environment can have any lasting effect.

3. If people in a democracy are guided by other people's attitudes, then in the next wave of the virus, society will probably no longer accept the same restrictions via any kind of communication. This puts much more difficult decisions on the shoulders of governments of the future. Instead, the likely solution is to take a higher level of risk, leading to a final phase in which COVID-19 no longer scares people any more than smoking-induced lung cancer does. 

The original Vikerraadio broadcast where Ilmar Raag made his comments (in Estonian) is here.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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