Fear of COVID-19 and Populism

Anxiety of being infected with the virus may easily generalize to other societal or political domains

November 13, 2020 10:30 AM
David Abadi
(University of Amsterdam)


Agneta Fischer
(University of Amsterdam)



David Abadi and Agneta Fischer*

The current global COVID-19 pandemic not only poses medical health problems, but also elicits a vast amount of collective anxiety and mental stress, which may have broader societal and political implications (Liu et al., 2020; Robillard et al., 2020). Anxiety is often referred to as a more generalized negative state of mind of foreboding or apprehensive anticipation of future danger and is considered less specific than fear. Fear always has an identifiable object, as one is afraid of something (e.g., Öhman & Rück, 2007). Thus, in the case of COVID-19, it may be more accurate to speak of fear rather than anxiety. However, at the same time, this fear may give rise to a more general anxious foreboding, as it remains unknown when and how exactly the coronavirus attacks the human body. 

We argue that the collective anxiety of being infected with the coronavirus may easily generalize to other societal or political domains (see Manstead & Fischer, 2001; Bruder, Fischer & Manstead, 2014). Fear and anxiety are characterized by a high amount of uncertainty (Roseman, 1984; Smith & Ellsworth, 1985) about whether and how one will be affected by threat. In other words, a virus and — by nature — individuals aim to reduce this state of discomfort as much as possible (van Harreveld, Rutjens, Rotteveel, Nordgren, & van der Pligt, 2009). 

One way to reduce this unpleasant emotional state is by blaming the government for not taking the appropriate public health measures. Another way to downregulate one’s fear and the accompanying uncertainty is through cognitive reappraisal, which means to try to perceive a situation in a less threatening way. For example, one could view the bright side of the COVID-19 implications, or reappraise them in terms of a divine purpose, implying that humankind has to accept the current situation.

Rather than framing the crisis in an optimistic way, however, people may also try to reappraise the feeling of having no control by blaming others for the experienced negative situation. Blaming others is one way to take back control over the fear of the unknown, namely not knowing how the coronavirus spreads and its impact on one’s life. This way of emotion regulation is actually replacing one negative emotion, fear, with another, namely, anger (Frijda, Kuipers, & ter Schure,1989; Mesquita & Frijda, 2011; Roseman, 1984). Blaming others is characteristic of anger (e.g., Fischer & Roseman, 2007; Harmon-Jones, 2003), but has also been associated with populist thinking, in which blaming the government and the elites for the negative state of affairs in a complex society is an important element (Abadi, Huguet Cabot, Duyvendak, & Fischer, 2020; Rico, Guinjoan, & Anduiza, 2017; Salmela & von Scheve, 2017).

In our research within the DEMOS project, we investigated the individual and societal impact of collective anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic in four European countries (Germany, Netherlands, Spain and UK, N=2031). We examined whether anxiety about the coronavirus leads to more approval of and compliance with hygiene measures, and what role political beliefs (i.e., populist attitudes, anger at the government) and conspiracy mentality play.

We found that exposure to the coronavirus indeed predicts how anxious one feels about being infected. Individuals who reported infections in their immediate social environment, and those who live in countries with high infection rates (Spain, UK) are the most anxious. Further, women and people in intimate relationships are more anxious than men and people who are single. Women generally tend to report stronger emotions (Fischer, 2000; Fischer, Rodriguez, van Vianen & Manstead 2004), which has been found in related studies on mental stress about infection (e.g., Liu et al., 2020). 

Most importantly, however, we found support for the idea that political and religious beliefs affect one’s anxiety as well: people with populist attitudes, who are both religious and angry at the government, are more anxious about the coronavirus, whereas the opposite was found for individuals who adhere to conspiracy theories. Thus, the direction of the effect was different than hypothesized: anger as well as religious beliefs do not downregulate anxiety, but actually increase it. This means that anger does not contribute to controlling and inhibiting one’s fear, but that it is experienced in addition to one’s fear, and actually makes one more fearful. In other words, people’s anger predicts their anxiety.

The role of conspiracy thinking is also interesting. Conspiracy thinkers tend to be less rather than more anxious, and they also are less likely to approve the hygiene measures of the government. This may be explained by the fact that their beliefs in hidden motives of politicians and secret organizations may somehow buffer them against the anxiety about being infected with the coronavirus. On the other hand, they do comply more often to the measures, which seems to suggest that they in fact are anxious about catching the virus. 

As expected, we found significant differences between the four countries, with Spain being consistently different from Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK. Spanish participants showed higher levels of anxiety, anger, and conspiracy mentality. However, they also approved of and complied with the hygiene rules. Spain had the highest death rates and largest number of infections in Europe. These might at least partly explain why people, in general, approve of and comply with measures that aim at slowing down coronavirus transmission. 

Our study in four European countries shows that not only anxiety about one’s own health, but also anger and political beliefs play a role as to whether one approves of and adheres to policy measures to contain the coronavirus. Whereas behavioral compliance is more predicted by fear and anger at people transgressing the hygiene rules, approval of hygiene measures is more predicted by anxiety about the consequences of COVID-19. In addition, one’s anxiety is not only predicted by realistic threats (versus symbolic threats), namely, proximity to sources of infection (age, country, oneself or friends being infected), but also by political views (populist attitudes, anger at the government). Importantly, people who are anxious are also angry at transgressors of hygiene rules or their government. Thus, rather than replacing their fear with anger, people’s fear of infection and death leads to more anger. This is especially true of countries with the highest infection rates.

The latest version of this study (currently under review) is available here.

* Dr. David Abadi is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Amsterdam Interdisciplinary Centre for Emotion (AICE), Department of Psychology, University of Amsterdam. His research examines the psychological and emotional mechanisms linked to populist and extremist sentiments (and their corresponding appraisals) as well as hate speech and abusive language across media. For this purpose, he deploys a combination of (computational) methods, such as big data analytics, machine learning algorithms, survey research, experimental design, and natural language processing (NLP). Recently, he has co-authored a publication (The Pragmatics behind Politics: Modelling Metaphor, Framing and Emotion in Political Discourse) by co-developing a deep learning NLP model based on RoBERTa (Robustly optimized BERT approach), in order to detect metaphor, emotion and political rhetoric in big data.

* Prof. Dr. Agneta Fischer is Professor in Emotions and Affective Processes at the University of Amsterdam and currently dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioral Sciences of the same university. She has published in the domain of facial expressions of emotion, emotional mimicry, culture and gender differences in emotions, and on specific emotions such as hate (Why We Hate) and contempt (Contempt: Derogating Others While Keeping Calm).


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