Rolf van Dick is professor of social psychology and vice president at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main.
Mr. Van Dick, Minister of Health Jens Spahn is a role model in the corona crisis. How does it affect the mood in the population if someone like him becomes infected? Does that lead to panic, fatalism or even more caution?
It’s a matter of communication. Everyone knows that ministers have many contacts in their work. For them, the risk of infection is of course higher than for the average person, who always meets the same three colleagues or family members. At the same time, there are the pictures of Jens Spahn in the closet, where everyone has their own table and masks are worn. The federal government consciously signals: We are careful, you do not have to worry that half of the cabinet is infected.
At the same time, however, there are those who say: The fact that Spahn was infected shows that masks and the AHA rules are useless.
There are. Many of them certainly disapproved of the mask beforehand. Psychologists call this a dissonance reaction. If I don’t like the mask, I prefer to hide studies that prove its effectiveness and focus on information that fits my attitude. Mask opponents thus fit Spahn’s disease well into the stuff. Some spokespersons in this circle even use it for their propaganda.
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What long-term political effects can Spahn’s disease have?
It remains to be seen how the disease develops. Fortunately, he appears to have fairly mild symptoms at this point. If the mild course persists, it can have two effects. As with US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, supporters will say: he tolerated the disease well, he is fit, we have faith in him. On the other hand, people who downplay Corona can try to use the easy course as an argumentation tool – following the motto: Isn’t everything so bad. Regardless of how the disease progresses, it must be communicated transparently. One should not leave the public in the dark as to how this happened in part with Trump’s disease.
To what extent are people oriented towards role models in the corona crisis?
Role models are always important. But in times of extreme uncertainty, as we are now experiencing, this is especially true again. People are strongly focused on acting as role models. We can see from Jens Spahn’s polls that he is such a role model in this crisis. He communicated clearly to the media and the public, responding as much as possible to people’s need for clarity.
The social psychologist Rolf van Dick Photo: Moritz Sirowatka / dpa
Nevertheless, it is now clear that even if you follow the AHA rules exemplary, you are not 100 percent protected.
Yes, we are in the range of probabilities. There is no such thing as absolute security in this area. If you take measures such as an everyday mask, hygiene, distance and ventilation, you reduce the risk of contamination. But it just doesn’t go to zero. At the same time, you increase the risk of infection while partying – but that doesn’t mean you will definitely get infected. It’s like smoking and lung cancer. Non-smokers can get it too, and chain smokers can also be spared. You should know that. At the same time, it is good that the government communicates the rules clearly and does not water it down by always referring to the residual risks. People should stick to it.
Can Spahn’s disease not make some people feel like I can’t escape it, can I? That would be a kind of fatalism.
I don’t see that yet. In Germany the numbers are still so low that not everyone personally knows someone who is affected by them. This of course also has positive and negative effects: on the one hand, it means that people don’t panic completely and think they will soon be next. On the other hand, it diminishes awareness of the problem for many. We have seen in our studies that, in addition to people who live in a risk area or belong to the risk group, especially those who know a corona patient are particularly cautious. Care in the personal environment is a very decisive factor.