Lisa Kramer is a professor of finance at the University of Toronto, where she serves as a research fellow at Behavioural Economics in Action at Rotman.
Oh, behave! That’s the upshot of all the “stay home” messaging urging Canadians to abide by COVID-19 lockdown measures. Where heartfelt imperatives may fall short in influencing people’s actions, behavioural science points to other ways of encouraging everyone to make choices that can help contain the pandemic. Evidence suggests people will be more likely to follow the rules when information is framed both to make it easy to grasp and to emphasize that the majority of others are behaving themselves, too.
Lockdowns and restrictions that cancelled gatherings in shops, restaurants, educational institutions and other public venues were the most successful for containing the spread, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour that evaluated the effectiveness of counter-virus measures across more than 200 regions. These restrictions dominated a range of other interventions, such as airport health checks and disinfecting shared surfaces.
But because lockdowns go against humans’ innate social nature, it can also be helpful to use psychology-based methods to help promote lockdown-abiding behaviour. One such approach is to curate the way we present information, building on extensive evidence that people care what others think and engage in activities that others deem socially acceptable.
For example, a recent news story reported that, based on anonymized location-tracking data, about 1.2 million Canadians spent at least one night away from home over the holidays. (This was actually quite an accomplishment, considering more than half of all Canadians would normally travel during the holidays. Clearly, many Canadians believe the science.) But this holiday travel data could be framed differently – if the reporting instead emphasized that holiday travel had plummeted and the vast majority of Canadians stayed home, it would subtly employ social reinforcement to encourage people to keep doing just that.
Humans can most effectively manage pandemic risks if they have access to timely and truthful information about infection rates, outbreaks, new variants and test positivity rates. As such, we must implore officials to be transparent and consistent in their public-health messaging. They must also work to overcome the failings of human nature – including a lack of intuition regarding exponential growth, the mathematical principle underlying pandemics.
To highlight most people’s poor grasp of the math, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen offered a demonstration: Imagine yourself sitting in the top row of a football stadium where a dripping faucet gradually fills the venue – first with one drop a minute, then two per minute, then four, and continuing to double every minute. In less than an hour, any large stadium would be overflowing in this scenario. And you, sitting up at the top, would likely hardly notice the rising water level until just a few minutes before the stadium filled up.
Public discourse has recently been plagued with pseudo-scientific conjectures that prolonged lockdowns lead to behavioural fatigue, causing people to become impatient about restrictions and more likely to take risks. Such arguments may be intuitively appealing, but they aren’t scientifically validated – a point forcefully made by 681 behavioural scientists in the U.K. who penned an open letter to the government early in their lockdown. They argued not only that behavioural fatigue is a concept lacking in any theoretical or empirical basis, but also that the evidence suggests the greater they perceive the risks to be, the more likely people are to adopt necessary changes.
Canadian evidence is relevant to their statement. During the SARS outbreak in Toronto in 2003, researchers interviewed a subset of the 14,000 people who had been placed in quarantine and found that some of these individuals voluntarily remained in quarantine and continued to comply with anti-infection measures longer than required – contrary to the idea of behavioural fatigue.
Still, to mitigate the significant economic and mental health consequences that can accompany lockdowns, it’s important to provide income support where needed, ensure broad access to paid sick days and to prioritize the reopening of K-12 schools before bars.
Nevertheless, even the best-laid COVID-19 response plans might still have a few detractors. Nearly every weekend since the pandemic began, anti-mask protestors have paraded through my Toronto neighbourhood, carrying signs and shouting slogans that betray their vulnerability to misinformation. A study published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General finds that prompting people to deliberate about the accuracy of information they encounter causes them to be less likely to believe fake news. The lesson seems to be: As people consume the news, they need to slow down, contemplate and be willing to change their minds when science conflicts with gut feelings.
While our human nature makes us vulnerable to infectious diseases, it also offers opportunities to help us navigate pandemics. Science gave us vaccines – the behavioural sciences can help ensure more of us live long enough to be vaccinated.
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