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The odd heroism of doing nothing

  • 27 March 2020
We are living in a time of pandemic but it seems so many people have been more focused on panic buying or flouting restrictions on social distancing and public gatherings. Why is it that many are less concerned about the virus than what they can buy or do?

One explanation is that people are making calculations based on factoring in a period of lockdown and social isolation, or the possible threat COVID-19 presents to them personally. Yet, if this is so, then why the panic in buying toilet paper? Or other items that will be re-stocked and replaced if everyone shopped according to their normal pattern?

And why the blasé attitude to infection in Sydney where infection rates are increasing at the highest rate in the country? These are not rational reactions, even if public messaging has not been clear.

We need an alternative explanation to explain our current behaviour and change it. One is provided if we understand humans as highly imitative, social beings.

A supermarket employee put it like this: ‘The question on everyone's minds at work: Why are they buying everything? One customer summed it up: "Because everyone else is."'

Steven Taylor, an expert on the psychology of pandemics, says that panic buying is a sign of human herd behaviour common to pandemics: ‘It always happens. It's a kind of a mass hysteria.’


'In a similar way to panic buyers, those flouting government restrictions are acting in mimetic ways. Because others are doing it, the attitude is that it’s "okay" for me to flout public restrictions. It is a pack mentality.'  

The philosopher René Girard argues this kind of hysteria occurs because humans are sophisticated imitators. It is what makes us capable of high levels of learning, socialisation and adaptation. Much psychological research supports the idea that humans are highly imitative. Neurological research indicates that mirror neurons likely influence the process.

Girard identifies our imitative capacity not only how we think but, more fundamentally — in how we desire — that our desire is stimulated by others. Desire is not structured by mythical ‘individual preferences’ but by what we perceive others want.

This imitative or ‘mimetic’ capacity can introduce us to various forms of desiring, which we can freely and rationally choose between. However, it also leads to social contagions in which we imitate each other in intense and irrational ways.

During these social contagions, our desire intensely fires from multiple points of stimulation, such that it is