ISSN 2477-1686


Vol. 7 No. 3  Februari 2021


Bipolar Reactions in Indonesia on Covid-19 Pandemic





Idhamsyah Eka Putra12 & Whinda Yustisia3


1Fakultas Psikologi, Universitas Persada Indonesia Y.A.I.,

2Division for Applied Social Psychology Research (DASPR)

3Fakultas Psikologi, Universitas Indonesia



It has been more than 9 months Indonesia facing Coronavirus pandemic (or Covid-19) since the government announced the first report of people infected by Covid-19 in the early of March.  There have been many psychological reactions expressed by the communities; the numbers of them might be confused about what Covid-19 is, disbelieved on the danger of the disease, and seeing Covid-19 as super dangerous. 


As the spread of Covid-19 across the world is considered novel to most of individuals, a number of group polarizations were found to emerge. Here, what we mean as a group polarization (Cothran, 2007) is when members of a group shift to a more extreme point. In India (Ummer, 2020), for instance, as of the reaction because Covid-19 is perceived as dangerous, there were groups of people refusing to bury the death of covid-19 disease in the graveyard located in their area. In the U.S. (Prasad, 2020), as the reaction of underestimating the threat of coronavirus, we found U.S. citizens showing against the protocol of social distancing and wearing a mask. 


But here in Indonesia, we found interesting things about divided/contrasting group reactions. We see in Indonesia, on one side there are people aggressively taking the corpse of their family member in the hospital. On the other side, we also see people showing aggressively their rejection of the death toll of corona buried in the graveyard close to their environment/neighborhood.  We call this phenomenon as group bipolarization reactions in which there are people extremely afraid but at the same time we see there are people extremely not afraid with Covid-19 in a society. 


As for example, we can see people in South Sulawesi blew up emotionally (TV One News, 2020) refusing their corpse of family members to be buried using coronavirus’ protocol. Thus they insisted to bury it as commonly like a normal burial treatment.  Yet in other event in South Sulawesi, we found community members aggressively to reject (Tribun Timur, 2020) the dead victim of coronavirus virus to be buried in the graveyard around their environment. Similar phenomenon was also found in Java (you can see here in East Java in Kompas TV, 2020a;  Central Java in Kompas TV, 2020b). 


There are explanations about this phenomenon. First, we don’t know exactly whether such reactions were attached to a group, but if it is the case this reaction of group bipolarization is understandable as it happened during the time of crisis and disruption information about Covid-19. On one hand people are confused of what has been happening but at the same time people need to have a quick response as because it links to a matter of death or alive. With tons of information that circulate through online social media platform (twitter, facebook, whatsapp, youtube, etc.) whereas its contents might be contradictive in one and another, people might just absorb such info without crosschecking or careful investigations. Thus, whether they are aware or not, people who have absorbed all info about Covid-19 can likely have contradictive perceptions in one mind that they see Covid-19 as dangerous but at the same time they see it as an unreal phenomenon.   This mechanism of thinking is known as cognitive polyphasia. In her article, Jovchelovitch (2002, p. 122) describes cognitive polyphasia as “a state in which different kinds of knowledge, possessing different rationalities live side by side in the same individual or collective”. 


A study conducted by Wood and colleagues (2012) about belief in contradictive conspiracy theories give a good example on the phenomena of cognitive polyphasia in a society. It is common to find that when people believe in one conspiracy theory, it is very likely they believe with other conspiracy theories. When people believe someone had set to kill Princess Diana by making it like an incident, people may also be able to believe that Osama Bin Laden was already dea when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan. What is interesting, findings of Wood and colleagues’ study indicated that people are also susceptible to absorb a conspiracy theory that is contradictive with other explanation of conspiracy theory.  When people believe that Princess Diana was murdered, somehow, at the same time they also believe that she faked her own death. A similar case found on Osama Bin Laden. The more people believe that Osama Bin Laden had died before the raid, the more people believe that he is still alive. In related to the disruption of information about Covid-19, it can make sense then why people from similar group (i.e. religious group) having bipolar reactions about Covid-19, that they are afraid and at the same time disbelieved with what has been happening. 


We need to note that the reactions in which we found people extremely afraid but at the same time we found people extremely not afraid with Covid-19 might be engaged from different groups. If it is the case, it goes to our second explanation that it might be related to the emotion of disgust. The idea is that disgust is useful in detecting the potential risk of diseases. However, previous studies have shown how the response to a disgusting stimulus can vary in terms of a group membership. This is because disgust also plays an important role in maintaining group boundaries. Reicher and colleagues (2016), for instance, found that self-reported disgust was higher when participants smelled a sweaty t-shirt with the logo of another university (outgroup) than in the condition where the logo belongs to their university (ingroup). In study 2, the researchers measured the amount of walking time to wash hands and soap pumps as outcome variables. They found that these two measures were lower in ingroup condition than outgroup or ambivalent (no logo) conditions. These studies indicate how disgusting stimuli are perceived to be more threatening when it comes from dissimilar than similar others. 


From an evolutionary perspective, Faulkner and colleagues (2004) have also provided evidence where perceived disease vulnerability was positively associated with a less positive attitude toward foreigners. This finding is attributed to the theory suggesting that unfamiliar others are more likely to be perceived as pathogens or parasites’ carriers (Park et al., 2003). The logic is that in our ancestral environment, people learn that someone from outgroups has certain health-related behavior that might contradict with ingroup’s way of life. Therefore, when individuals encounter dissimilar others, they might attempt to anticipate the potential risk of different ways of life that might be detrimental to health. Furthermore, unfamiliar others would be more likely to bring contagious diseases, while ingroup members do not have the immune system yet (Diamond, 1999). Thus, under this perspective, if it is somebody we know, we feel less disgust. In this case, people are not afraid of Covid-19 when their family member contaminated with Covid-19. If it is somebody we do not know closely, we then will feel more disgust. Therefore, we tend to reject them when they got Covid-19.


Now what we can get from here is that people’ response to viruses, like Covid-19 can be varied between and within the groups because of psychological factors, such as conspiracy beliefs and other emotional aspects. We therefore see that governments need to give a clear direction about what people can/cannot do in this situation. Unclear messages will cause the psychological confusing which will lead people to lean on their instinct in guiding their’ responses or reactions. 


Regardless such reaction of people extremely afraid or not afraid with Covid-19, the role of leaders is critical in handling the outbreaks. To be able to create a social order during the time of crisis like the outbreak of coronavirus, this needs a consistent attitude as well as a common attitude/perspective found among leadership team, thus they are showed as a solid team.  This is still missing in Indonesia where among authorities either from central or local government, the ways they handle the coronavirus are sometime not-linear, contradictive, and ‘labile’. 


Likewise, people will obey to social distancing’ protocol when they see government authorities as part of them (i.e. common identity) and the protocol seem as part of ingroup norm. This could be applied when the leadership team is able to tackle problems raised above. 




Cothran, D. (2007). Group polarization. In R. F. Baumeister, & K. D. Vohs (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 398-398). SAGE Publications, Inc.,


Diamond, J. (1999). Guns, germs, and steel: The fates of human societies. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.


Faulkner, J., Schaller, M., Park, J. H., & Duncan, L. A. (2004). Evolved disease-avoidance mechanisms and contemporary xenophobic attitudes. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 7(4), 333–353. DOI:10.1177/1368430204046142


Jovchelovitch, S. (2002). Re-thinking the diversity of knowledge: Cognitive polyphasia, belief and representation [online]. London: LSE Research Online.


Park, J. H., Faulkner, J. & Schaller, M. (2003). Evolved disease-avoidance processes and contemporary anti-social behavior: Prejudicial attitudes and avoidance of people with physical disabilities. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27, 65–87. DOI: 10.1023/A:1023910408854


Prasad, R. (2020, May 05). Coronavirus: Why is there a US backlash to masks? Retrieved 06 May, 2020, from


Reicher, S. D., Templeton, A., Neville, F., Ferrari, L., & Drury, J. (2016). Core disgust is attenuated by ingroup relations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(10), 2631–2635. DOI:10.1073/pnas.1517027113


Ummer, P. (2020, June 30). Gravediggers in India refusing to bury those who died of new coronavirus. Retrieved 06 January, 2020, from


Wood, M. J., Douglas, K. M., & Sutton, R. M. (2012). Dead and Alive: Beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories.  Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 767–773. DOI:10.1177/1948550611434786


Youtube Links

TV One News (2020).

Tribun Timur (2020).

Kompas TV (2020a).

Kompas TV (2020b).