Yes, You Might Be Becoming a Bit of a Jerk

Science explains why there’s a loss of human compassion during pandemics

Wudan Yan
Elemental
Published in
7 min readJul 15, 2020

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Illustrations: Virginia Gabrielli

Since Washington state, where I live, instated its stay-at-home order over 100 days ago, I’ve noticed a number of changes in my behavior. First, the novelty of the Zoom hangouts wore off, and I found connecting with friends and family over video chat left me feeling more drained than fulfilled. I found this baffling, especially as an extrovert. Next, my fiancé noticed that I was getting snippier. At one point, he said, “It seems like right now you don’t have the capacity to be there for me, and that’s okay” — a statement that I did not view as an insult but the truth.

Most recently, on a walk with my dog — a sweet 65-pound German shepherd named June — a small, yippy, off-leash dog ran toward her. I tried to wrangle June while telling the other dog’s owner to leash her dog. This rapidly escalated into a screaming fight, during which a neighbor came out on his lawn to tell us, “I know we’re all a little wound up these days but…” (I didn’t hear the rest of it because I had turned around and left).

I don’t usually see myself as crass, uncaring, or volatile. And even though I am writing this for a sea of strangers, I like to think that my friends would agree. Every time I noticed myself acting uncharacteristically, I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience: a ghost of me watching from afar, wondering what on Earth was happening to me.

If any of my behaviors under lockdown resonate, that’s likely because we’re all a little — as my neighbor said — wound up. Call it what you want: compassion fatigue, empathy fatigue, or just straight up crisis fatigue. The reality is, the shitshow of 2020 is beginning to catch up with our ability to deal with anything, especially other people, if it hasn’t yet already. Whether we are taking care of ailing family members, impossibly juggling work with childcare, mourning the death of a pet, working a job that demands a lot of empathy already, doomscrolling through the news, or grappling with the despair of living in relative isolation because that’s what it takes to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, our ability to care feels like it’s firing on all cylinders and getting depleted again and again and again. With so…

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