Before the FedEx driver made it to the bottom of my driveway, I was bounding out the door to grab the package he’d just left. It wasn’t until I’d plopped it onto the counter and sliced it open that I realized I hadn’t thought to disinfect it, or been patient enough to let it sit for 20 minutes, let alone 24 hours (the length of time studies show the coronavirus can survive on cardboard).
That’s not the only way I’m slipping; I’m still washing my produce, but I’ve stopped thoroughly disinfecting all of my groceries. I’m still washing my hands, of course, but it seems like the current bottle of soap is lasting much longer than the ones before it. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you the last time I disinfected my laptop keyboard, or wiped down the backs of my kitchen chairs.
In the grand scheme of things, those lapses are pretty minor, but I’m certainly not alone in cutting corners. As we near the fourth month of social distancing and stay-at-home measures, plenty of people are finding themselves being much less vigilant than they were at the pandemic’s outset. Jackie Gollan, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, calls it “caution fatigue.”
“People begin to show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines. We become impatient with warnings, don’t believe them to be entirely real or relevant, and start to interpret risk incorrectly.” If you’ve found yourself playing fast and loose with hand-washing or mask-wearing, despite being a rational person who knows the virus is still spreading, blame it on your brain’s incredible ability to adapt.
“The act of washing the groceries was designed to turn off the fear. Now we don’t have as much fear, so we don’t need it.”
“What’s really happening, underneath all of it, is we’re becoming desensitized,” Gollan says. “Initially, we’re fearful and we take action. But the brain is wired to adjust, and it gets tired…