By Lois Aryee & Mukta Joshi

As economies enter various phases of ‘opening back up’ and countries gradually ease COVID-19-related lockdowns and restrictions, many people find themselves constantly navigating ambiguity and uncertainty around how this should affect their everyday decisions and actions. 

Two ideas42 team members, based in different parts of the world, share their experiences and offer helpful insights based on behavioral science. 

Mukta Joshi: In the suburban New Jersey neighborhood where I live with my family of four, the four months before July were characterized by a fear of the unknown related to COVID-19, compliance with local government regulations concerning strict stay-at-home orders, and a religious following of public health guidelines in the spirit of reciprocity toward the healthcare workers who were fighting at the frontline in tough circumstances. 

Flash forward to July 2020, however, the social scene in my neighborhood is steadily changing. Families are hanging out together with an intention to stay physically distant that rarely translates into an action – particularly when children are involved. Pool parties and birthday celebrations are routinely organized and although held outdoors, they rarely comply with physical distancing and mask wearing guidelines

Lois Aryee: Here in Accra, I have observed two categories of people. The first generally never adhered strictly to the physical distancing protocols in place due to real constraints, especially for those who are lower-income: more difficult living situations and a dependence on daily income for their livelihoods that prevents them from being able to safely distance. 

The second group, largely middle and upper-income, sound more similar to what you’re describing in your New Jersey context, Mukta – gradually waning in their initial strict observance of recommended safety measures. Friends and families are now gathering again and organizing social events where recommended health guidelines are not observed. People feel overconfident around familiar faces, or in each other’s homes, as if somehow the virus can’t attack the people or places they know. Across the board, there’s an increasing weariness of all restrictions – people, no matter their situations, are itching to return to some semblance of normalcy.

How the changing context is leading to changes in behavior

Psychological quirks are having a powerful effect on our behaviors – it doesn’t matter if we’re in Accra, New Jersey, or elsewhere. For example, when otherwise rule-following people decide to go out more often than needed, without maintaining physical distance because they see others around them are doing so, that can be attributed to the power of social norms

MJ: In my particular case, the feeling of helplessness has played an additional role in me giving up on preventing my children from playing with their friends living across the street. The only things I am particular about are that they play outdoors and do not touch each other – asking for anything more than that requires free time to pay constant attention (a luxury, particularly at present), or nagging them, which leads to unpleasant interactions that often prove to be futile. 

It’s not uncommon these days to hear someone say some version of “I have been home for so many weeks, I think it’s okay to visit a relative or close friend at their home just once.” For the sacrifices they made by staying at home, people take the license to reward themselves with something like this, even when they are not making a safe choice given the ongoing, still spreading pandemic. 

LA: Following one safety measure can create a false sense of security, leading to neglecting other equally important ones. In Accra, I’ve observed that people sometimes feel more protected than they should in crowded places like the market, because they are wearing a mask–and as a result, they fail to physically distance. 

Recently, in many countries around the world, lockdowns have been relaxed and restaurants, malls, beaches, and parks have started to open up gradually. This has led many people to venture out to such places in large numbers, making it difficult to adequately adhere to physical distancing. People are taking such seemingly trivial actions because the consequences of these actions are not immediate. The ostrich effect, which causes people to simply avoid unpleasant realities, further encourages tendencies to engage in pre-COVID activities using pre-COVID norms. Others may also have the mental model that if things are opening up, the virus must not be as threatening any more, when that is not the case everywhere, like many areas in the United States. 

Although the current severity of COVID-19 is arguably as strong as it was when it started, other timely topics have been the focus in the media. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice protests in the United States, and military clashes on the India-China border in India. In Ghana, upcoming election activities and controversies have occupied media and public attention of late. With less information sharing and coverage (and subsequent social media chatter) circulating than in previous months, COVID-19 can feel less salient (and therefore less imminently dangerous), potentially creating a business-as-usual attitude among citizens.

The good news: behavioral science holds promise

We know from research in behavioral science that people respond to what they see, hear, and perceive. Whether real or imagined, the sense that everyone is going back to normal, or that everyone is lax on following health protocols, will only lead more people to do the same. This is often subconscious, especially given that there is little to no enforcement of positive behaviors or safety measures. If there was ever a time to leverage these same human tendencies in a way that promotes the health and well-being of people, the time is now. 

Simple messaging can be used to change the narrative on what’s normal. People in leadership positions can communicate, signal, and exemplify the right behaviors. At the corporate level, this is already being modeled by many businesses closing offices until the fall, and in some cases until 2021. This gesture sends a signal to staff that physical distancing is still important, regardless of what it might seem like outside. 

School principals, community leaders, religious leaders, and parents, can likewise signal positive behaviors within their spheres of influence. First, by walking the talk – observing physical distancing, wearing masks, etc. wherever they are spotted. By hearing and observing consistent messaging at multiple levels – government, corporate, community, and family, people are likely to do what we as humans do – model what we see. 

To help counter the false optimism that may be created by easing restrictions, regular updates or reminders on COVID-19 should be resumed. These communications should highlight and affirm positive behaviors, showing that many people are still following the recommended guidelines. 

The content of what’s communicated is just as important as the message itself. People are currently inundated with messages telling them what to do – wear masks, observe social distancing, etc., but less so with why and how. When messages feel overwhelming and difficult to follow, people are more likely to give up trying altogether. 

Breaking down guidelines into practical steps, and demonstrating why it’s important, will help people follow through. Images and guidelines that give more concrete examples of what to do instead of visiting a loved one, or of other activities people can engage in to still feel close to each other, may be more helpful than telling them to stay home. Besides, for many, always staying home is simply not possible, and guidelines on what to do when you do go out are more useful.

Connecting positive behaviors to issues people care about is also more likely to get a response. For most people, the consequences of their actions aren’t immediate or direct, and they may never know who their behavior affected, or how. 

Highlighting the fact that your decisions and actions have a direct effect on others will cause people to think twice about their behavior. Showing personal stories of people making sacrifices to protect their neighbors, loved ones, and other vulnerable people, will help make individual decisions feel more personal. People generally want to matter, but the pandemic can feel so big and overwhelming, countering the sense of individual agency. 

By showing that a person can save the life of even one other person, who may be the breadwinner of their family, thereby keeping an entire family well and safe, following safety measures will feel more meaningful.

There are many people who want to do the right thing, but are afraid to stand out  as the only ones doing so. By wearing a mask when you go out, or actively practicing physical distancing, your actions may empower another person to do the same. You can make a difference, even as a single person. 

LA: A family member recently told me that he sometimes feels awkward wearing a mask in public spaces if he didn’t see anyone else doing the same, even though he knew it was one of the most caring things he could do for others, and for himself. If he saw even one other person also wearing a mask, however, he suddenly felt emboldened to continue to do the right thing. Imagine if we each decided to be that one example –  what positive ripple effect this could have across our communities.

These are difficult times for everyone. Observing health protocols, especially when consequences feel distant, can seem costly. Even as we seek to promote desirable behaviors, let’s remember to practice empathy, knowing that we are imperfect humans, often with good intentions, struggling to act on them. With a little help from behavioral science, we can harness those good intentions to make a real difference, and create more positive impact.