Lockdown 4: What’s Stopping Us From Staying Indoors & Being Safe?

Nature of our interaction with COVID is one where it attacks us, and we, the players, interact with each other.

Published23 May 2020, 03:27 PM IST
Opinion
4 min read

We are witnessing the largest behavioural change event in recent decades. A pandemic is upon us, and we find ourselves unable to follow guidelines, despite every well-meaning medical professional, media outlet and Instagram influencer reminding us of the dire consequences. With rising infection rates and fake news abound, how does our brain process being under quarantine? What can we do about it, and what do we end up doing?

In such a crisis, we have to make decisions based on imperfect information, along with one of the primary emotional responses during a pandemic – fear.

Humans, like other animals, possess defence mechanisms for combating threats – ecological or otherwise. These systems often drive risk perceptions.

Our behaviour is contingent upon how we assess risk, not logically but as a feeling. Our reactions to events around us are not solely guided by cognitive evaluations, they are often informed by our feelings about that risk, which in turn dictates how we act.

Here are five reasons why we can’t seem to stay indoors:

We Can’t ‘Do the Math’

When your neighbour describes the symptoms of their child experiencing coronavirus, for example, it is far more likely to have an impact on us than listening to a news channel announce that the probability of contracting the coronavirus is 42 percent. We are unable to imagine consequences of events purely based on numbers since feelings about risk are largely insensitive to probabilities.

We’re (Never) the Chosen Ones

We believe the likelihood of us getting the disease is not as high as it is for the rest of the population. We are privately optimistic about the future. According to estimates, 80 percent of the population hold unrealistic, optimistic beliefs about their own future.

However, when asked about the overall state of affairs, most people will say that it looks bleak.

We’re Trained to Believe Otherwise

The respite from the confines of our house and interaction with people creates a rush of relief and excitement. We increase our visits to the local store or park, as the reward of relief persists and there are no visible, immediate consequences of our actions. Additionally, the incubatory nature of the disease and the possibility of asymptomatic carriers makes it harder to gauge cause and effect. And so we create small loops for ourselves with dissonance between the known risks of stepping out and our personal experiences of it.

We Game the Disease

We use tricks such as elbows to press elevator buttons, or constant sanitisation, to believe that we are indeed safe and following protocol. Gaming the disease provides a sense of control, a feeling of being able to decide outcomes in the face of uncertainty.

We rationalise as a defence mechanism, this helps us deal with emotional conflicts by devising reassuring but incorrect explanations.

We’ve Lost a Lot

Being stuck at home represents a loss on several fronts. For most, we miss interacting with our loved ones, the smell of office coffee – others face the threat of unemployment. We begin to make decisions the way we usually do when we incur losses, by becoming risk-seeking. Similar to our behaviour during investment decisions, with an increase in time, the quantum of losses we face increase, and the valence of our emotions reverse – this makes us take less than optimal decisions – akin to exiting an investment when it’s at its lowest.

So How Can Authorities Encourage Staying Indoors?

“You’ve Spent So Long Being Safe, Why Stop Now?

The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency for people to continue an endeavour if they’ve invested time or resources in it. Reminders of the time (the sunk cost) invested in keeping the disease at bay with no negative consequences, would help sustain the behaviour.

“It Was Hard For Me to Breathe, I Lost Sense of Smell”

Increase the vividness of the consequences of misbehaviour even as quarantine eases up, heightening anticipatory emotions by asking people to describe symptoms or listen to narration by an infected patient would help them better evaluate the risks of engaging in unsafe behaviour.

“What Should I Do to Play My Part in Achieving This?”

The nature of our strategic interaction with the coronavirus is one where it attacks us, and we, as the players, interact with one another. Our payoffs are a combination of health and economic effects, and decisions need to be coordinated to be effective. Therefore, employing team reasoning alters the unit of agency from the individual to the group of players. When each player asks “What do we want?”, we increase social interdependence and belief in the power to produce effects through collective actions.

As we go forward with the virus’s exponential capacity for growth, even slightly easing quarantine guidelines allows the infection rate to bounce back dramatically.

We remind ourselves of risk, and the rules of this game until we have a widely available vaccine. Because this is not a game we can afford to lose.

(Isha Jain works in the Behavioural Science & Design team at Fractal Analytics. She graduated from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, with a double major in Economics and Psychology. She brings behavioural science to the domains of education technology and healthcare. Her interests lie in exploring social norms, cognitive processes and emotions for behaviour change. Her Twitter handle is @ishajain2097. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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