But Denmark has turned to a strategy of trusting its citizens with hard truths. The ensuing adherence led to low death rates and laid the groundwork for a 95% vaccination rate for all people over the age of 50 (and 75% for the general population). In September 2021, my country announced that COVID-19 is no longer classified as a “critical threat”.
Prior to the pandemic, I had studied Danes’ responses to crises, including a deadly 2015 terrorist attack in which a lone Islamist gunman attacked a free speech event and a synagogue. My colleagues and I concluded that the majority of Danes did not attack Muslims or call for restricting their rights after these events, in part because of the clear messages from politicians. This is not to say that irrational and harmful behavior does not occur, but the likelihood of mass panic in the face of crises is overestimated, especially if authorities and media keep a cool head.
In March 2020, I started studying pandemic responses at home and abroad, and became an advisor to the Danish government. My overall message was: don’t assume the public is going to panic. This hypothesis is counterproductive and is not confirmed by research.
During a pandemic, rapid behavior change is crucial, so that people cannot be asked to “stay calm and carry on”. They need clear information to take the crisis seriously enough to listen and know how to act. At the beginning of March 2020, that was my post on social networks, in the media and, ultimately, to the Danish government.
When Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announced a lockdown on March 11, 2020, the government’s rhetoric evolved into impressive clarity and an acknowledgment of uncertainty. The #FlattenTheCurve graphic (popularized by The Economist magazine a few days earlier) was used to show how an uncontrolled epidemic would strain hospitals. It created a sense of urgency and crisis, but no panic. And Frederiksen clearly recognized the uncertainty. “We are in uncharted territory in this situation,” she said. “Will we make mistakes? Yes we will. “
It could be argued that the Danish authorities dared to trust their citizens only because they knew the citizens trusted them. After all, Denmark often tops international trust studies. But I think this experience is relevant elsewhere. Research consistently shows that when faced with a disaster, people react with solidarity and not with panic. For example, a study after an earthquake in China showed that people became more willing to share resources with foreigners and do charitable work (L.-L. Rao et al. Evol. Hmm. Include. 32, 63-69; 2011). Evidence of terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere echoes the Danish experience: while political leaders lead by example, the average citizen does not turn against the rights of people from ethnic minority groups. Even during the epitome of the alleged pandemic panic – hoarding – most people waited patiently in line with their packages of toilet paper.
The idea that the public is unable to deal effectively with the unpleasant truth thwarts the management of the pandemic. This causes authorities to communicate in self-defeating ways. My group’s research shows that messages should communicate self-efficacy: people who think they know what to do and how are likely to comply (F. Jørgensen et al. Fr. J. Health psychologist. 26, 679-696; 2021). Governments that underestimate their populations focus on what the public cannot do.
Publicly suspicious authorities also downplay negative or complicated facts. Rather than explaining emerging evidence, for example, of diminishing immunity or new variants, paternalistic authorities resort to vague assurances. Our research shows that imprecision inhibits vaccine acceptance and lowers trust in authorities (MB Petersen et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. United States 118, e2024597118; 2021).
Maintaining trust is essential: it is the best indicator of vaccine acceptance and an antidote to misinformation. Danish health officials have made clear the serious, potentially fatal side effects when they suspended the use of specific vaccines, even though side effects are extremely rare. My research and that of others show that this decision – with explicit descriptions of trade-offs and effectiveness – did not undermine overall support for immunization or confidence in health authorities (KM Sønderskov et al. Day. Darling. J. 68, A03210292; 2021).
In 1997, political scientist and Nobel laureate in economics Elinor Ostrom warned that policymakers create “cynical citizens with little trust in one another” by acting without regard to people’s ability to think for themselves. themselves. Perhaps such problems persist because governments have increasingly relied on behavioral advice rooted in psychological bias research. While such research does not intend to promote the idea that populations are irrational, it routinely highlights errors in human decision-making, which can amplify views already popular among political elites.
What can be done to allay this mutual mistrust? To borrow from game theory, only the authorities can play the role of precursor. If the authorities do not dare to trust, the citizens never will.