Will we ever trust crowds again?

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If socializing makes you cringe, you’re not alone. Scientists say the pandemic is re-shaping our senses of fear and disgust, and it’s unclear how long the change will last.

WATCHING A RERUN of the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld gave me the first inkling that COVID-19 might be rearranging my mind for the long term. On the screen, the characters sat across the table from each other at Monk’s Café. Kramer flopped into the frame, draping his arm around another occupied chair. As his arm touched another person, I physically recoiled.

By then, my hometown of New Orleans was a few weeks into the pandemic, and I was already stepping off the curb whenever a stranger approached. If someone slipped by my paranoia and caught me unaware on the sidewalk, I held my breath and rolled my eyes as they barged past. Those behaviors felt natural, even though by mid-March, scientists were already pointing out the low risk of coronavirus transmission in the outdoors. All of my friends reported feeling something similar, and one told me that she had to turn off the TV if a subway scene came on. We’re not alone. Even as some states begin to reopen, most Americans—regardless of political affiliation—say that they’re uncomfortable going into crowded situations, indoors and out, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

Neuroscientists and psychologists propose that people aren’t cringing around strangers and crowds because of pre-existing senses of fear or disgust. Instead, many in society are simultaneously learning a new emotional experience.

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