Judgment has become as much a part of the COVID-19 pandemic as a pile of crumpled masks. Seeking to avoid criticism, some people (and organizations) have been known to photoshop masks onto faces in their social media posts. Others, seeking to criticize, have blown up once-friendly group chats over COVID-questionable invitations — Heidi Cruz's neighbors providing only the most high-profile example.
Those who've been hunkered down for months can't stand seeing their friends' selfies from inside bars and restaurants and airplanes. Friendships have ended over arguments about the safety of attending a protest or going on a date. And it's not only double-maskers condemning maskless "covidiots." It's the eye-rolling reserved for anyone still wiping down their groceries.
Even vaccines, which ought to be cause for celebration, have become a source of tension, magnified by distinctions in eligibility criteria — smokers versus teachers, diabetics versus trash collectors. Looking at my state's vaccination schedule, I seem to rank after "shipping port and terminal workers" but before "bottled beverage industry workers." Somehow, it feels like a comment on my worth.
So along with anxiety, confinement and isolation, we've suffered 12 months of resenting other people's travel photos on Instagram and their roomy home offices on Zoom. Twelve months of fraught conversations with friends and family over whether going to the grocery store means you're still quarantining — or selfishly risking the health of an underpaid Instacart shopper. A whole category of derisive internet meme is devoted to people who wear their masks below their noses.
The acrimony is understandable. Passing judgment probably had a useful evolutionary function back in the days when humans were running from saber-toothed tigers, said Tasha Eurich, an organizational psychologist. Humans survived only with one another's help, and it was useful to have a sense of what was right and wrong for the group. The pandemic has thrown us back into a world where the collective looms large: With a deadly disease in the air, each person's decisions affect other people's health.
At the same time, local authorities have often left people to make up their own minds as to what's risky and what's not. This creates a perfect breeding ground for censure. Expect it to get worse as states drop their COVID restrictions.
Righteous indignation has an addictive quality, said Eurich. But all this side-eyeing is exhausting. "There's an empirical link between being overly judgmental and the amount of stress we feel," she said. Getting worked up about other people's behavior "is like drinking poison and waiting for your enemy to die."
If shaming is so costly, why do people still do it? Eurich said it's psychologically easier to decide that so-and-so is a bad person than to accept the dissonant idea that a good person might make a "bad" choice.
Shaming also offers an illusion of control. "He went to a bar, so of course he got COVID" is a way of keeping distant from someone else's situation — and hoping our own choices are protecting us. It shields us from recognizing how little control we really have over a noisy, indifferent and sometimes dangerous world.
The pandemic has undermined our mental wellbeing. By any measure, rates of anxiety and depression are up. And judgment is just wearing us down further.
It's also undermining public health. Yes, norms around behaviors like masking are good. But if people know they'll be judged for testing positive, they'll avoid getting tested. Associating getting COVID with being irresponsible nudges people to lie to contact tracers, to household members ("Yes, of course I wore my mask the whole time") and even to symptom-checkers.
Earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic, historians noted that after the 1918 flu pitted fearful neighbor against fearful neighbor, the people who'd lived through that era really didn't want to talk about it. I'm starting to understand why.
Eurich said ideally we'd be able to muster some compassion for each other — and ourselves — in this difficult time. "Forgiveness is a superpower. It actually helps us function in the best possible way," she said. "Empathy is the antidote to ruminating about other people's choices."
But she concedes that some people might find such perspective-taking a bridge too far. For them, a different approach can be nearly as helpful: The next time someone makes an unwise choice, make a conscious decision to refrain from thinking of them as a bad person. This sort of motivated choice reduces anger and, after 12 months of pandemic, can provide a vacation from judgment.
As vacations go, that's not one on my bucket list. But with real travel off the table, a visit to the Isle of Indifference doesn't sound bad.
Sarah Green Carmichael is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously managing editor of ideas and commentary at Barron's, and an executive editor at Harvard Business Review, where she hosted the HBR Ideacast.
A note to our community:
As a public service, this article is available for all. Newsday readers support our strong local journalism by subscribing. Please show you value this important work by becoming a subscriber now.SUBSCRIBE