COVID Hysteresis

Caught your attention, eh? Am I calling some political group — anti-vaxxers, anti-maskers — hysterical? What a crude charge for a psychiatrist to make, not to mention sexist!

Hang on. “Hysteresis” has nothing to do with hysteria. It’s a term from cybernetics that describes a lag in a system’s response to a change in input. A simple example is a home thermostat. Change the setting and it takes time for the house to heat up or cool down to that temperature. The system has a built-in lag.

Psychological hysteresis

While pandemic lockdown in the spring of 2020 occurred quickly, it took time for most of us to adapt to the new normal. We gradually found ways to live our lives. Even greater hysteresis is occurring now as restrictions are lifted, especially for the fully vaccinated. Here in San Francisco, where well over half of adults are fully vaccinated, most still walk outside wearing masks, weeks after the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared it unnecessary. Many hesitate to eat inside restaurants, visit gyms, or attend indoor concerts, even though health authorities now consider these safe.

There are many ways to characterize this widely-reported lag: anxiety, inertia, better safe than sorry, feeling socially “rusty,” and so forth. Psychological hysteresis usually goes by other names, because we have fuller accounts than a simple cybernetic description. For example, we all know that, in general, feeling unsafe happens much faster than feeling safe again. Sudden danger, such as news of a new, lethal virus, instantly erases our sense of safety and trust. Regaining that sense of safety takes a long time. Some now declare it will take forever.

Peer pressure (social learning theory) matters too. A critical mass of early adopters must perform a new behavior before others feel comfortable doing so. It’s harder to go mask-less when in the minority, harder to resume indoor activities when friends and family are still avoiding them.

What it means about us

And then there’s self-image. Many blue-state residents strictly followed pandemic guidelines this past year, and took pride in our self-sacrifice on behalf of larger society. Diligent masking and social distancing meant something about us. At times this took the form of virtue signaling, a kind of “safety theater” that telegraphs certain attitudes to oneself and others without really enhancing safety. Wearing a mask while driving alone or walking down a deserted street serves no practical purpose. But it may serve a symbolic purpose for the wearer by reinforcing self-identity and self-esteem.

With newly relaxed guidelines from the CDC, the symbolism of wearing or not wearing a mask is muddled. When we pass a masked person on the sidewalk, we can no longer tell virtue signaling from (undue?) anxiety. When we pass unmasked persons, we can no longer know if they carefully follow the latest guidelines or have been spitefully flouting them all along. A similar, more subtle confusion occurs in each of us as well. What are our true motives? Fear? Defiance? False bravado? Rational assessment? Obsessive concern? This is uncharted territory. None of us fully know ourselves.

Adopting a new normal

We cannot live as though COVID-19 never happened. The pandemic changed our work habits, our use of teleconferencing, our personal and business relationships, our attitude toward contagious viruses. Living through any routine year subtly changes us, so it’s no surprise that the past momentous year has done so. All the same, the best medical minds now say vaccinated people can do almost everything we could before — without masks, without social distancing, without worry. The hysteresis is in our heads, and we will overcome it as fast as our sense of safety allows.

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