In the midst of economically crippling lockdowns, global leaders are largely refraining from giving deadlines for the relaxation of social distancing measures. Uncertainty about the virus’ spread is only half of the story; after all, politicians are usually quite happy to make empty promises or baseless predictions regarding future scenarios.
A new research paper—based on the Italian experience—clarifies why the coronavirus requires a different approach. When governments publicly announce durations for social distancing which they then go on to violate, those who were heavily anchored on what was initially announced suffer a robust psychological shock, and respond by diminishing their willingness to voluntarily comply with social distancing measures. In contrast, those who were anticipating an extension are mentally unperturbed, and maintain their adherence to social distancing measures.
For this reason, governments are starting to learn—some of them the hard way—that in terms of expectations management, and therefore compliance with social distancing measures, it is preferable to make vague statements about the expected duration of restrictions.
Economist Guglielmo Briscese (the University of Chicago, USA) and his colleagues arrived at this conclusion by conducting a survey of a representative sample of Italian residents’ beliefs and intentions regarding social distancing measures over the period 18-20 March 2020, one week after the Italian government had imposed a national closure of most retail stores, restaurants, and personal services; and a few days before the suspension of all non-essential economic activities.
From the perspective of global leaders, Italy’s experience is highly valuable as a source of information on best practices, for several reasons. First, it was the first European country to experience the pandemic acutely, meaning that it yields more data from which to draw evidence-based inferences than other members of the western world.
Second, Italy’s social norms involve highly tactile interactions between people—hugs and kisses between acquaintances are common, making it more suitable for studying the challenges of social distancing compliance than countries with less tactile cultures, such as Norway or Japan. This is especially important for countries in the Middle East, where holding and shaking hands are extremely prevalent. Moreover, also like the Middle East, trigenerational households are far more common in Italy than in Sweden, also making it a more suitable source of evidence for policymakers in much of the developing world.
Third, Italy has low trust in government, ranking 122nd in the world in 2017, compared to third place for New Zealand and fifth place for Finland. Since it is the government that is demanding that citizens observe social distancing guidelines, and governments have limited coercive measures at their disposal, people’s trust in their government is a critical determinant of compliance. In this regard, Italy is much more representative of the challenges that governments typically face in ensuring compliance than the high-trust countries of Scandinavia.
Dr. Briscese and his colleagues describe a cognitive bias known as the “goal-gradient” effect: the farther one is from a goal, the less likely one is to exert effort to achieve it. In the context of the coronavirus, they predict that “moving the goalpost” of when isolation measures will be lifted creates frustration, disenchantment, and eventually non-compliance. They note the existence of similar mechanisms in airlines when flights are delayed, announcements are made about the expected delay, and then the actual delay ends up being worse; the result is significant damage to the airline’s reputation among passengers, and an elevated desire to switch to competitors.
However, in the case of airlines, the costs of a poorly-executed expectations management strategy by customer service teams is borne by the airline and aggrieved customers only; in contrast, in the coronavirus case, society ultimately shares the cost too, because of the contagion consequences of a failure to comply with social distancing measures.
In the Italian case, the survey data revealed that participants were more likely to express an intention to reduce their self-isolation effort if “negatively surprised” (meaning that their expectations turned out to be over-optimistic) by a hypothetical extension to the social distancing measures. Moreover, this intention was stronger among participants who reported higher compliance with the social distancing measures, and who were therefore making a critical contribution to the country’s efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus.
It is possible that this kind of thinking explains the Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq Rabia’s recent declaration that tackling the coronavirus will take a minimum of four months, and up to one year, deciding against providing specific short-term “reassessment” dates.
Yet notably, Rabia also chose to say something, rather than nothing at all, which reflects one of the broader lessons learned from the current pandemic: good communication is a critical component of good crisis management.
Some governments have adroitly kept their citizens abreast of their coronavirus strategies, securing trust and compliance; others continue to pay the price for the communications-analog to an ostrich burying its head in the sand. As George Bernard Shaw once quipped: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain
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