The role of communication during the Coronavirus emergency

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An intereresting interview to Prof. Alberto Gallace, PhD Associate Professor of Psychobiology – University of Milano-Bicocca

The coronavirus emergency has radically changed our daily behaviors. What do you think of how most media have been communicating?

Hard to give a univocal answer, since the media haven’t always been acting consistently lately. Generally, though, as it’s often the case in situations of this kind, I have noticed an often fragmented flow of information, not necessarily based on consolidated evidence, frequently aimed at sensationalism rather than at giving clear, thorough information.

Obviously, as I pointed out, not all media have been acting in the same way. The most novel aspect of communication has perhaps been the importance placed on science. Never as at this time have we seen scientists and researchers on talks shows and in dedicated features.

Do you think this helps to better understand what has been happening?

On a side, this is undoubtedly true, if it wasn’t for the fact that scientific research is only valued when real danger is perceived. Why don’t we always, even in ordinary times, think about how much is invested every day in research, which allows us to prevent problems rather than just to fixing them?

Scientists have been addressed almost religiously, and asked for certainties and unequivocal answers that science doesn’t necessarily have. In dangerous situations, leaders are needed, and the authority that comes with knowledge is surely one of the factors that leadership is based on. This is why the scientists’ opinion has become so important. The problem is that in the varied media universe that we are exposed to (including not just conventional media, but also social media, etc.), it’s not easy for common people to understand who has got the adequate knowledge to give reliable opinions, supported by empirical data (I’m thinking of all the various fake news that have been spreading during the emergency).

What role has communication been playing?

Communication has undoubtedly played a key role in this situation, but in some instances, possibly unintentionally, it has contributed to confuse people with inaccurate, conflicting information, alternatively shifting the focus from science to politics. In emergency situations, however, a clear communication is key in order not to trigger panic, or to generate mistrust and behaviors that would be critical to control.

Our mind is used to reacting to certain signals, and since we’re social animals, some of these signals are the social ones (just think of how we’ve all been impressed at people stockpiling goods in supermarkets, yet another behavior that is actually easily justified from a psychobiological standpoint).

If during an emergency strong emotions like fear arise, and confusing instructions are given, what results of it is panic and distrust.

Another important factor that I have noticed about media is overexposure. We have continuously been overexposed to data and communications about the emergency. As for all other stimuli, constant exposure creates habituation; it’s a basic functioning mechanism of our nervous system, and some time after this is activated, a neuron reduces its ability to respond. There’s a risk that the same happens to the way we evaluate events (which lose meaning and importance).

Do you feel that in managing this crisis, fear should be stressed in order to encourage social behaviors like social distancing?

This surely is a sensitive issue. As human beings, our emotions have a great impact on our decisions. I often talk to my students about how simple physiological reactions to emotions (accelerated heart rate and breathing, and so on) are often used to direct our choices and behaviors. Fear is extremely useful, as it triggers reactions that prepare us to face critical situations. If you need to run from danger, you will need more oxygen in your blood, get your muscles ready to sprint into action, modify your sweating, and so on – all reactions that allow to face particular or new situations. However, if fear overcomes a certain level, it shifts from adaptive to maladaptive. We have now known for some time that if physiological responses (heart rate, sweating, etc.) determined by emotions such as fear overcome a certain level, they negatively affect all our performances. Panic strikes, as well as immobility, irrational and dysfunctional reactions. All of which is terribly harmful in situations of emergency.

As far as fear is concerned, there is also something else to consider. Scientific research has revealed extremely interesting things about this. There’s a structure in our brain called amygdala, which is strongly responsible for this emotion. It’s triggered any time stimuli or situations arise that might cause fear (which happens even when it seems we’re not considering these stimuli at all). However, there’s a crucial element to bear in mind. When fear mixes with our desires (anything that triggers our motivational system, like meeting our loved ones, wanting to buy something, to eat certain food, etc.) the first becomes somewhat less powerful. Let me explain: studies have been carried out on smokers exposed to pictures of the damage caused by smoking. Such pictures trigger the amygdala, which detects a stimulus that create fear (or that should potentially be avoided). Yet, if the smoker quits smoking for a few days, this triggering mechanism reduces until almost disappearing, and a “reward circuit” is activated instead, which drives our search of pleasure. In other words, fear is short-lived, and this is why we cannot focus on it.

Essentially, upon analyzing the situation during lockdown, what we have observed is that fear has contributed to keep everyone at home, but after several weeks, people have started going out again, because fear subsided and made room to other needs. Many considerations could be made about the effects of fear in communication strategies, but there would be no space to analyze them all here. Basically, I remain skeptical about the possibility to use fear-related strategies to generate prosocial behaviors.

How will a restart impact social behaviors?

Hard to make predictions, since we don’t have any consolidated reference models. The prerogative of science is not so much giving explanations of reality as making predictions about them. Unfortunately, we lack previous data to analyze in order to make predictions or build models. Sociality is certainly an important part of our being, and it’s impossible to think that situations where no contact is allowed can be prolonged without any consequences. What worries me most is that at the moment, we’re thinking of allowing social activities again while still keeping social distancing in place, or via technological solutions. As the director of a research center on new technologies (virtual and mixed reality; www.mibtec.it), I’m the first to say that these will really be of help (and not just in terms of healthcare, but of environmental sustainability too), but we can’t think they can be enough to ensure the mental health we need, or at least not at their current state of development.

Do you expect consumers to change their purchasing behaviors?

There will surely be changes in terms of purchasing behaviors. To some extent, these will follow the ongoing trends – such as buying online, without physically coming into contact with products. This aspect is more crucial to some goods than others. Generally speaking, we know that our brain implicitly perceives holding something in hand as owning it – not to mention the enjoyable feeling of handling physical objects, such as vinyl records, although we know that digital versions of them exist too. Tact enables us to establish physical relationships with products, and makes us intimately tied to them. When we have a chance to touch and manipulate something, we’ll often be more likely to go and buy it. Otherwise, the chances of us buying it just reduce.

I also expect quality to gradually be considered as more important than quantity. The principle of scarcity will equally need to be considered, and assessing consumers’ behaviors might help. The more goods are perceived as hardly reachable or limited in quantity, the more they’re craved, and the more people fear they might not get them. It’s something similar to competing for resources in the animal world (think of different animals crowding around their prey; if they weren’t in a group, they wouldn’t behave this frantically).

I also expect to see frenzied purchases of objects, services and goods that were out of reach during lockdown. All due, once again, to another basic psychobiological principle that regulates our nervous system, which is reactance. Basically, to make people want to do something, there’s nothing more efficient than denying people the freedom to do so (a rebellious wish is triggered, to support our independence).

alberto gallace

Our desires for what we have been forced to give up on will become even more imperative, and the environmental stimuli that remind us of this even more significant. I’ll make another example here, and this time not as a scientist, but as someone who loves sailing. Every time I look out of the window, it looks like it’s always windy, so the first thing I’ll do will be to get on a boat (maybe after stopping by my lab, though – I miss that one terribly too!).

The professor. Alberto Gallace, psychobiologist at the University of Milan Bicocca, specializes in the use of neuroscientific knowledge in the fields of design, marketing, and the development of products and technologies. He is currently director of the Mibtec university research center and deputy director of the Best4food interdepartmental center.

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Emanuela Zini
Emanuela Zini
My professional life has been marked by several big changes that made me grow as a person and as a leader, develop new skills and mental flexibility, which in turn allows me to face challenges from a different, unique perspective. To me, writing represent a way to communicate with myself and with others. Telling stories and engaging my readers are the challenges that I am currently facing within a wider editorial project.

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