Istiqamah…On the importance of staying the course

By: Dr Nor Diana Mohd Mahudin

When the movement control order (MCO) was first imposed on March 18, the instruction was straight forward – stay at home. Sounded simple enough. Yet, I found myself increasingly restless, even rebellious, especially when photos of prominent individuals flouting the order without facing any consequences were everywhere. Still, the instruction was clear, but honestly, it was exhausting being cooped up for almost 50 days. This is rich coming from someone who is private and prefers to be reclusive – like me. 

So, why are we tempted to do something when told not to? In the COVID-19 scenario, how do we explain when some people defy public health orders despite knowing the consequences and potential risks? Or maybe the better question should be, how do we explain why some people comply with directives while others do not? 

In most cases, people do comply – and the reason is that complying and conforming make things easier. After all, if everyone else is doing something, that thing will generally tend to be a sane thing to do. We can see this through the increased compliance rate across the four MCO phases, albeit gradually. During these phases, many of us followed the directives set by the Ministry of Health (MoH) and the National Security Council by working or learning from home, cancelling trips, washing and sanitising hands, following cough etiquette, and maintaining a distance of at least one metre, among others.  For many, we understand that compliance with these directives is necessary to flatten the curve and slow the spread of the virus. 

As countries, including Malaysia, take steps towards lifting their COVID-19 restrictions, I cannot help but wonder whether we will continue to do all these behaviours. Although the first four days of the fifth phase (i.e., conditional movement control order CMCO) show some promise, there are always lingering doubts if this behaviour change will sustain over a longer term. This is because, even when the MCO was fully enforced, there have been a high number of people detained for violating the restriction. Numerous instances of people ignoring similar directives have also been reported all over the world. 

When pressed, we rebel

So, why do restrictions lead to the opposite of the intended effect? In their seminal work, Jack Brehm and Sharon Brehm suggest that people tend to push back against anything that restricts their freedom, even when it is for the good of humanity. This tendency to do the opposite when told – the impulse to fight back to freedom restrictions is known as psychological reactance. Another psychologist, Richard de Charms, explained that reactance is motivated by the need to freely choose behaviour and need to exercise self-determination. As such, when we are pressed to accept a particular rule, view, or attitude, we perceive that our freedom to choose has been compromised.  Consequently, we react in the opposite direction and try to maintain or restore our freedom. 

Whether reactance emerges or not depends on several factors. For example, 

·      The greater the threat to freedom (e.g., not allowed to leave own house), the greater the reactance,

·      The more important the threatened freedom (e.g., freedom to visit family members), the greater the reactance arousal,

·      The greater the magnitude of the exertion of the influence (e.g., using martial law-like tactics to keep people in fear), the greater the reactance aroused, and

·      The way that we define ourselves as individuals, including our values, interests, and goals, also has a strong influence on psychological reactance. 

And then, somehow, it got worse

Past research has told us that reactance to actual and perceived threats to personal agency and control is one of the major factors in understanding people’s responses to pandemics. As I read the excerpt below by George Soper published in the esteemed journal Science after the deadly 1918 Pandemic, it is striking how similar the narratives and conclusions in it with what is happening now. 

It does not lie in human nature for a man who thinks he has only a slight cold to shut himself up in rigid isolation as a means of protecting others on the bare chance that his cold may turn out to be a really dangerous infection” (Soper, 1919).

It is common to have people who are contrarians in every society. But, during a pandemic, reactance can be deadly as it ruins all the efforts to mitigate the spread of the pandemic. What’s alarming is that the population at most risk has the most psychological reactance when they do not take the distancing precautions seriously.  Such a scenario can be seen not only in Malaysia, but also in Singapore, USA, and many other places. 

Essentially, it boils down to three factors: misinformation, indifference, and distrust; all of which can flame reactance even more. With social media awash with conspiracy theories and one-sided perspectives, inaccurate information allows people to cherry-pick information that supports a desired conclusion. As for indifference, the thoughts of “I am healthy”, “No one around me has been sick” or “This will not happen to me” can lead to an attitude of resistance. Finally, the growing distrust in governance and political institutions, particularly after the political changes in early March, evokes reactance as a way to protest against the new government that is formed without an election. 

So, what to do when we feel an urge to rebel?

As the MCO progresses, I’ve become more aware of my own psychological reactance. And I realise that, now more than ever, we need to istiqamah, i.e., remain steadfast in continuing to do the right things. Drawing on current psychological research as well as Ibn al-Qayyim’s work on steadfastness, I suggest five ways to achieve it:

1.    Sharpen our self-awareness  

Be a bit more self-aware by going over our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours to ensure that we are doing the right things for the right reasons. In this case, continue to tell ourself that whatever we do is done for the sake of Allah SWT (ikhlas) and use this awareness to motivate us to maintain our new normal behaviours. In doing so, we are actually self-analysing our responses to any directives or orders. 

2.    Notice more 

It’s vital to understand that the virus is here to stay, and we cannot will it away by being “tough” or “cool” or “indifferent”. Nor can we survive it through fortitude and strength of character. Although it may sound grim, until and unless we develop a vaccine, we will likely have to learn to live with the virus. Therefore, always be aware of what is happening around us, especially when we go out and about. 

Get in the habit of pausing to make a quick mental assessment of the environment. Ask yourself – Is there anything around you that poses a threat to your health and safety, and if so, to what extent? Is there anything you can do to safely reduce that threat? Also, validate correct behaviours and make others aware when someone deviates from the directives. For example, proudly wear a mask and acknowledge others who do so. Insya-Allah, this situational awareness will help in reducing the risk exposure to the virus.

3.    Reframe our thoughts

In our mind, reframe the new normal behaviours so that they do not feel like threats to freedom. For example, I tell myself, “If I can think differently about the distancing, I might be able to spare myself from those negative thoughts and emotions”. In addition, try to remember that just because someone asks us to do something, they are not necessarily trying to control us. Tell yourselves that you are free to decide what is good for you and maintaining the new normal behaviours is a good thing to do. 

It’s clear from the research on cognitive psychology that cognitive reframing is an important part of being resilient. Therefore, repeating these reframed thoughts to ourself every day can help keep our emotions from spilling out in misplaced ways.

4.    Take perspective 

Reactance depends a lot on our perspectives. So, if we look at the situation from the perspective of the MoH, for example, we can see that continuing to abide the public health orders can help stop our health service from becoming overwhelmed again. We’ve got to have a bit of empathy for the MoH staffs who have been working nonstop for more than three months. Absorb a sense of gratitude and remember how fortunate we are to be able to support MoH in its efforts to combat the pandemic. Indeed, perspective-taking and empathy have long been found to reduce or prevent reactance.

5.    Keep learning

Listen to public health experts, follow their advice, and act on their recommendations. Their words matter as they can be forewarning us of the latest news and possible contingencies for which we need to prepare that will help us navigate the path ahead. So, continue to do the recommended COVID-19 precautions, do them with knowledge (‘ilm), and perform them in the manner that they have been instructed and in the best way possible. 

At the same time, monitor the government alerts and push the politicians to tell the truth. Reactance can be fuelled by dishonesty, so now is not the time for pointing fingers, deflecting blame, or downplaying what is happening. It is the time for us to seriously look at the bigger picture in terms of how we rethink the health services, how we treat the environment, how we handle the distribution of wealth, and how to reorganise the economic and social infrastructure and priorities beyond the crisis. 

A take-home message

This is indeed an extraordinary time to live. The ongoing pandemic has put us in a place where we have to understand that things will not be going back to normal. Relaxing restrictions does not mean that the pandemic is over. In fact, we need to be vigilant and istiqamah more than ever. An effective response to this pandemic relies greatly on mass behavioural change. So, the next time you find yourself wanting to rebel – consider how you are responding to the directives and see if your response is based on logic or on reactance. 

In the meantime, please avoid the 3C’s: 

Crowded places, Confined spaces, and Close conversations.

Dr Nor Diana Mohd Mahudin is Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, IIUM. A fully referenced version of this article can be found at:

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