Pessimism Perception

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As we begin to focus on reopening our economy from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic — with all 50 states having by now at least started the process by the last week of May — don’t be surprised if it feels to you like ‘shelter-at-home,’ and social distancing have been going on practically forever. It’s interesting to note that the first shelter-at-home orders were given in California, Washington, Illinois, and a few other states on March 23rd. Florida’s social distancing mandate wasn’t issued by Governor DeSantis until April 7th — by this same date most of the remaining states had ‘stay-at- home’ orders of some type as well. That means most of the country had between seven and nine weeks under the strictest distancing orders until restrictions began to relax.

If it felt longer, there’s a sound psychological reason.

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Clock time doesn’t change. But the way we perceive a period can and does change.

Anne Wilson, Professor of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, noted in reference to the Coronavirus crisis that, “The majority of my students who commented noted that time felt like it had slowed down — they felt like ‘pre-COVID’ seemed like forever ago.”

Wilson notes that a time period in which lots of changes occur over a certain period contributes to this feeling. “When it seems like a lot has changed since a past point in time, that time seems subjectively very distant. The world looks very different than it did a month ago, which is likely why, for many of us, February seems like ancient history,” she said.


What’s more, emotions also affect perceived time. Periods with unpleasant events seem to drag on, while pleasant times fly by. The by-products of the Coronavirus threat — having to avoid human contact, wearing masks, worrying about becoming infected or infecting others — are all surely less than pleasant, and therefore add to the perception of life moving slowly. Wilson notes that boredom also slows things down mentally. Empty days and a lack of new experiences means more time to focus on what’s not happening. It’s like the “watched pot never boils” idiom.

Unfortunately, our perception being somewhat out of alignment with reality can lead to a problem in a situation like Coronavirus. Because things aren’t pleasant now, we tend to project our current state of mind on our potential future. In short, we tend to become, in different degrees, pessimistic.


The Brookings Institute is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Their mission is to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national, and global level. They caution that even in the best of times, the belief that things are worse than they really are tends to be a common, though hardly universal, trait. Humans need to be aware of potential pessimism, and safeguard against its effects.

Pessimism can cause an overinvestment in maximizing current security (beyond what would be normally prudent for the situation — like social distancing, wearing masks, & avoiding close gatherings of groups) and underinvestment in other aspects of life that can affect our future.

Now, it is no wonder some amount of pessimism has taken root. There has been large scale loss of lives during this pandemic, and one need look no further than any newscast to be reminded of it. The impact for many has hit close to home: some have lost family members and friends to COVID-19, and almost everyone knows someone who’s had it. There’s still an element of uncertainty about the future.

Still, the fact remains that the perception of the American public will be key to driving our economic recovery. And our economy plays a big part in our overall outlook. Until the majority feel more safe about visiting family and friends again; until we begin to once more frequent our favorite stores and restaurants; until travel, sporting events, and a fun night out with a show or concert — until all of these seem normal and not fraught with potential harm again — we will not have recovered completely, economically or mentally.

There is some good news as we move down the road to recovery. Once any bleak, perceptually drawn-out time period has passed, we tend to look back on it and perceive it as shorter than it was. Our perception reverses itself, meaning that in a few short weeks the Coronavirus time period, “may seem quite short,” says Professor Wilson, “Because we don’t have many distinct memories to fill the time period.”

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There’s another factor that will begin to come into play: our tendency to forget.

Dr. Robert N. Kraft analyzed why we forget in Psychology Today. Forgetting, especially unpleasant things or events, has some actual benefits for us. Memory, says Dr. Kraft, is extraordinarily important to how we define ourselves and approach the world. But because we don’t approach events in life with the primary goal of remembering them, we simply don’t remember. Instead, our goal is to understand the events in which we take part — to manage through them, negotiating our way until we get through them.

Our brains are set up to attend to the present and move us forward. We see, we comprehend, we act, and react. This makes sense: the odds are higher that unless you are an actor running your lines, there are very few times outside of studying for a test in which we set our goal to remember specific things.

Forgetting also helps humans live with trauma and pain in life. Details hat were once unpleasant to experience and remained vivid in memory fade away. Time diminishes the remembrance of the pain. Our brains become less able to consciously access the experience as the edges of memory are continually smoothed over.

This means that as time continues to progress, and the Coronavirus threat continues to diminish, our memory of the threat will be less and less vivid. After all, how many of us were truly familiar with the 1918 worldwide, so-called, Spanish Flu pandemic before the media began referencing it as a platform to anchor the current Coronavirus discussion? The Spanish Flu was called the “Forgotten Pandemic” because, deadly as it was, it was competing for attention with World War I.

But there have been other events, devastating in their day, whose details are likely not familiar to most:

  • The 1957 to 1958 flu pandemic that killed approximately 2 million worldwide — including 70,000 in the United States
  • The 1968 to 1969 pandemic that killed over a million people worldwide
  • The 12,000 Americans that died from 2009-2010’s H1N1 “Swine Flu” pandemic

Remember ZIKA? Mad Cow Disease? Chances are you haven’t worried too much about either for quite some time now. That’s not saying anything to denigrate or diminish what were deadly threats with real impact to real people.

It’s simply saying that we are resilient and move ahead of challenging instances. And that may be a good thing for economic and psychological recovery.

There is one more factor that can help, one that most would not think of immediately. This factor can help perception, increase optimism, and drive our economic recovery by direct appeal: Advertising.

It’s been proven that advertising is necessary at least in part because of our forgetfulness. Consumer awareness of a product and its popularity depend on a high share of consumers’ minds. To achieve this, consumers must think of that product before its competition. But our lives are busy, with thousands of things competing for our attention every day — including the advertiser’s competition.



And without a continued presence in advertising — well, as we know, people forget and many brands no longer occupy any space in consumers’ minds.

This is one reason advertising has tended to increase every year for decades. American investment in advertising has increased every single year since the bottom of the housing crisis in 2009 through 2019, when it amounted to over $263 billion. But there’s more to advertising’s impact. In a country where consumer spending is such an economic driver, advertising motivates people to spend more. This spending promotes job growth and productivity.

Two Nobel Laureates in economics, Dr. Kenneth Arrow and the late Dr. George Stigler, quoted in the House Subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures of the Committee on Ways and Means, say advertising “...helps the economy to function smoothly — it keeps prices low and facilitates the entry of new products and new firms into the market.”

A 2005 study by Global Insight, a financial analysis firm, showed advertising helped generated more than $5.2 trillion in sales and economic activity in the United States economy each year. That’s about 20% of all economic activity, accounting for more than twenty-one million jobs.

Advertising helps stimulate economic growth. That’s something we all need right now, and one reason we’re glad to be in the business that we are in.