Post-Pandemic Fear Extinction

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The Coming Post-Pandemic Fear Extinction

A recent YouGov U.S. survey produced a startling result. Of folks fully vaccinated against COVID-19, 54 percent nevertheless remain “very” or “somewhat” fearful of catching the virus—as do only 29 percent of those who “refuse to get vaccinated.” Asked about their comfort levels with various activities, 51 percent of vaccine refusers believe it’s safe to travel, as do only 29 percent of those vaccinated.

You read that right: Most protected folks still feel unprotected. And most of those unprotected by choice feel safe.

Fear Conditioning and the Pandemic

It’s no secret that the two groups differ in many ways, including politics. In Dalton County, Georgia, 9 in 10 people voted for Trump and, as of early May 2021, 4 percent were vaccinated. In San Francisco, 1 in 10 voted for Trump and 2 in 3 are vaccinated (and the COVID case rate is approaching zero).

As much as the vaccinated and vaccine-refusers differ, they seemingly share one thing in common: In their gut, neither fully trusts the vaccine efficacy science.

“No! Not social reëntry!” ~ Cartoon by Julia Suits“No! Not social reëntry!” ~ Cartoon by Julia Suits

Some vaccine refusers discount the pandemic as overblown. As one said, “The coronavirus is a wildly overrated threat.” (Never mind its causing more U.S. deaths than the sum of all its wars except the Civil War.) But many also discount or suspect the vaccine science: They distrust the government, doubt the need, worry about side effects, perceive a conspiracy, assert their liberty, or question the benefit. Therefore, they agree with Senator Ron Johnson: “Why is this big push to make sure everybody gets a vaccine?”

Ironically, they are joined by fully vaccinated people who still fear a devastating COVID-19 infection and so continue to wear a mask when walking outdoors, to eschew socializing with other vaccinated friends, or to travel on planes with virus-filtered air. Never mind that among the 74,000 people in clinical trials receiving the Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, Astra-Zeneca, or Novavax vaccines, the total who died of COVID during the trial period was zero. And the number hospitalized with COVID was also zero. The vaccines are amazingly protective.

Fear Extinction after the Pandemic

Yes, a very few vaccinated people have contracted the virus (nearly all without becoming seriously sick). And among the millions now vaccinated, many will die—because even with no COVID-19, some 8,000 Americans and 800 Canadians die each day. Thus, there will be alarming stories of vaccination + death for media reporting. And the ready availability of those stories will, for many people, override the statistics of risk.

Thanks to their automatic use of the availability heuristic (judging the frequency of things by their availability in memory), most folks display probability neglect: They fear the wrong things. They fret about massively publicized remote possibilities while ignoring higher probabilities. So it is that most folks fear commercial flying more than driving (which, per mile, is 500 times more dangerous). So it is that many parents who don’t bother strapping their child into a car seat fear letting their child walk alone to school. And so it is that vaccinated people, after habitually living with pandemic fear for more than a year, have difficulty embracing the good news of vaccine efficacy. After 14 months, habitual fear is slow to subside.

But the good news: Subside it will. As exposure therapy has demonstrated, people who repeatedly face fear-arousing situations—starting with minimally anxiety-arousing settings—gradually become desensitized. Over time, their fear response extinguishes. Life will return to normal.

Meanwhile, for us educators, there remains an ongoing challenge: to help people think smart—to think critically, enlightened by evidence (and, yes, statistics). Between fearlessness and paralysis lies wisdom. Between cynicism and panic lies courage. Between recklessness and reticence lies informed prudence.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit; follow him on Twitter: @DavidGMyers.)

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see