The Behavioral Emergency That Threatens Our Survival

We are in the grips of a behavioral emergency. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), a behavioral emergency is:

 when a client is at risk of behaving in a way that could result in serious harm or death to self or others. A behavioral emergency requires careful evaluation. Once a risk is found, therapists must respond to prevent any harm from occurring.

Is it our natural tendency during a life-threatening crisis to abandon social norms? The idea that a collective danger brings out the worst in us is a popular cultural trope.

behavioral-emergencyThe Real Emergency

Most “Doomer” movies are cautionary tales of a cutthroat battle for scarce resources.

We fear roving, lawless gangs depicted in such horror films as “Mad Max” and “The Road.” But this fear is the stuff of nightmares and not social science.

There is, however, a widespread behavioral emergency that threatens us during this global pandemic.

But it is not some dark instinct to isolate and prey upon one other.

It is, however, our tendency to huddle closer together for mutual aid and support that is the real behavioral emergency.

Why is Social Distancing So Hard?

Social distancings goes against human nature. During a life-threatening emergency, human beings tend to remain calm and mutually supportive. Humans huddle closer when faced with a shared danger.

Human nature makes social distancing challenging. This behavioral emergency poses the biggest obstacle to overcoming this global pandemic.

This is a cruel “evolutionary mismatch.” Our natural inclinations and our pragmatic need to maintain social distancing are at odds. Social distancing may be our only defense against the virus. However, it violates every instinct we have. Human nature, particularly human nature under siege, is intensely social.

The Behavioral Emergency…Craving Social Contact

While it is true that humans will seek to protect themselves (i.e., stocking up on food and TP), these self-protective behaviors occur within a broader social context.

President Trump is under a great deal of political heat. He’s been criticized for mishandling the coronavirus threat. Many Americans believe that he was unique among global leaders in his casual approach to COVID-19.

But unwise as he may have been, he was far from alone in his behavior. The pandemic was also nonchalantly greeted by France, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and many other nations as well.

behavioral-emergencyGlobal Nonchalance

The French have been incredibly lax about maintaining social distance. They are still meeting in bars and terraces, openly flaunting the idea of social distancing.

At this moment, with nearly 150 thousand cases of COVID-19, Germans in Berlin and Stuttgart are taking to the streets to protest social distancing rules.

As late as March 21, Germans in Bavaria were in open defiance of mandated social distance protocols. The urge to take comfort in social gatherings is powerful. People congregate, even when doing so, will create a source of collective danger.

The Behavioral Emergency of Empathy and Solace

Attachment science describes who we are as human beings, and how bonds with others define us from the cradle to the grave. Dr. Sue Johnson.

As Dr. Sue Johnson Has often said, human connection is our most ancient survival code. The more anxious we are, the more we seek solace from one another.

But along with the urge to seek comfort is also the drive to offer comfort. In times of great peril, we have a powerful, intuitive drive to help others. Not only our families but also the “helpless.”

Empathy is a natural response when we are experiencing a shared external threat.

The research compared data from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and social science. It discovered that life-threatening events tend to make us more collaborative and connected.

Safety in Numbers

Dr. Guillaume Dezecache, the lead author of this study, put it this way:

“When people are afraid, they seek safety in numbers. But in the present situation, this impulse increases the risk of infection for all of us. This is the basic evolutionary conundrum that we describe. After all, social contacts are not an ‘extra,’ which we are at liberty to refuse. They are part of what we call normal.”

The Critical Role of the Internet and Social Media

A powerful antidote to our relentless desire for social connection is the Internet and social media.

Ironically, before this global pandemic, people who spent an excessive amount of time on the Internet were often criticized as “unsocial.”

But social media and the Internet now offer an effective alternative to the behavioral emergency of in-person social gatherings.

Professor Ophelia Deroy, one of study co-author, said:

“Hazardous conditions make us more — not less — social. Coping with this contradiction is the biggest challenge we now face.”

Another study co-author Profesor Chris Frith added:

“Our innate inclinations are cooperative rather than egoistic. But access to the Internet makes it possible for us to cope with the need for social distancing.”

The Vital Need for Free Internet for All

However, depending on how long this pandemic persists, social media may not always suffice. Professor Deroy cautions:

“How well, and for how long, our need for social contact can be satisfied by social media remains to be seen.”

Free access to the Internet, will curb this behavioral emergency. It is vital for public health, said Professor Deroy:

“This is an important message, given that the most vulnerable sections of society are often those who, owing to poverty, age, and illness, have few social contacts.”

Refusing to Comply With Social Distance…the Real Behavioral Emergency

People who refuse to social distance are often scolded for being thoughtless and stupid.

They resist being controlled. But they are also tired of being constrained when they feel a powerful instinct to congregate to soothe and be soothed.

The challenge is to reframe the frustration and annoyance of social distancing into an empathetic sacrifice for the good of us all.

Coping with Uncertainty

Social distancing will not offer up a “feel-good” moment. But it will help us cope with uncertainty and build our collective resilience.

“We must recognize that we are more than ‘homo sapiens.’ We are ‘homo vinculum’ -the one who bonds with others. And these bonds are what will save us. They always have.” Dr. Susan Johnson.

We won’t feel helpful or empathetic in social isolation. But we must do what is necessary, even as it violates our more personal sense of freedom and agency.

Kindness is the Watchword

“Human nature dictates that it is virtually impossible to accept advice from someone unless you feel that that person understands you.”Dr. John Gottman.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could be kind and patient with one another?

It is a great sacrifice to practice social distancing. It is a heavy cognitive load. It’s not the way we humans are wired. As we struggle to be prudent and careful, let’s try to be patient and forbearing with one another until it hurts. Because sometimes it will.

But let’s insist on it, nevertheless.


Dezecache, G. (2015). Human collective reactions to threat. WIREs Cogn. Sci. 6, 209–219. 2. Drury, J. (2018). The role of social identity processes in mass emergency behavior: an integrative review. Eur. Rev. Soc. Psychol. 29, 38–81. 3.

Dezecache, G., Grèzes, J., and Dahl, C.D. (2017). The nature and distribution of affiliative behavior during exposure to mild threat. R. Soc. Open Sci. 4, 170265.

Mawson, A.R. (2005). Understanding mass panic and other collective responses to threats and disasters. Psych. Interpers. Biol. Process. 68, 95–113.

Mawson, A.R. (2017). Mass Panic and Social Attachment: The Dynamics of Human Behavior (Routledge).

Morrison, I. (2016). Keep calm and cuddle on social touch as a stress buffer. Adapt. Hum. Behav. Physiol. 2, 344–362

El Zein, M., Bahrami, B., and Hertwig, R. (2019). Shared responsibility in collective decisions. Nat. Hum. Behav. 3, 554–559.

Koomen, R. (2020). 7 things to know about human psychology when dealing with the coronavirus. Medium. Available at: https://


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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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