Why scaring people about the coronavirus can backfire

Omar Al-Ubaydli
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The communications strategy of many governments is predicated on alerting people to the grave danger posed by COVID-19, to motivate them to socially distance. New research suggests that such an approach can backfire, by making people fatalistically give up on social distancing.

The crux is that social distancing is a psychologically painful act that goes against our very nature, and so we have to be convinced of the purpose it serves if we are to practice it. Aside from the occasional hermit, we all want to be close to our loved ones, and to get to know new people in our schools and workplaces. Naturally, such behavior directly contributes to the spread of the coronavirus, and so governments – upon the advice of public health officials – are urging us to avoid meeting people outright, and, when forced to meet them, such as at the grocery store, to maintain a physical distance that renders most conversations impractical, especially when both parties are wearing a mask.


If we like social proximity, why would we comply with government wishes to distance socially? The first motivation is self-preservation: If you get close to people carrying the coronavirus, you are more likely to be infected, and risk serious health consequences, including death. Even those who live through it still have to grapple with the boredom and discomfort of a potential stint in quarantine.

Second, there may be material incentives to comply, such as fines and imprisonment for those who fail to distance socially. Stores are within their rights to turn away customers who refuse to wear a mask, or who get too close to other patrons when waiting in line.

Third, there are psychic incentives that reflect social norms and civic duty – i.e. people believe it’s the right thing to do.

As many who have innocently and inadvertently coughed in public during the last three months have discovered, the frowns and glares directed toward them can be enough to motivate many to get with the social distancing program. Moreover, social media has turned into fertile plains for finger-wagging social distancing hawks, and even celebrities have been keen to remind us how important it is to “stay at home.”

However, much of the motivation to comply with social distancing rests upon making people feel as though their efforts will yield a reward. A new paper by Jesper Akesson (The Behaviouralist) and colleagues, titled: “Fatalism, beliefs, and behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic,” demonstrates that if people start to lose hope regarding their ability to avoid contracting the coronavirus, they may fatalistically decide to reject social distancing and revert to natural levels of physical interaction.

Their study involves surveying people in the UK and the US, giving them information about the risks posed by COVID-19, asking them for their beliefs regarding the rate at which the coronavirus spreads, and finally asking them about their social distancing intentions for the coming weeks.

A key finding is that people who believe that the rate at which the virus spreads from person to person due to physical contact is high, are less likely to wash their hands, and are more likely to visit at risk groups. While this may seem counterintuitive, or even irrational, it actually makes sense when realizing that some people feel as though contracting the coronavirus is inevitable.

On average, this is indeed the case for people who think that transmission rates are high. To people who possess this mindset, asking them to practice social distancing is akin to asking a death-row prisoner to stay away from unhealthy food in their last meal. It may explain why some people in the Gulf have been keen to meet up with family and friends during Ramadan, in direct contravention of strict government orders.

The study’s authors go on to argue that this is not a merely academic finding—it is an actionable one from the perspective of policymakers. In particular, they found that in both the UK and US, ordinary people significantly overestimated the rate at which the coronavirus spreads from person to person.

Consequently, combining this with the first finding, getting people to correctly revise these estimates down may lead to greater adherence to social distancing protocols, because part of the non-adherence may have been the result of exaggerated beliefs regarding the virus’ rate of transmission.

How might policymakers go about ensuring that people do have accurate perceptions? The usual suite of policy options is available, including public awareness broadcasts, social media campaigns, and, when the time is right, teaching people the truth at school. More generally, the coronavirus crisis has demonstrated the importance of a sound communication strategy to maintain public order, and to enhance the effectiveness of countermeasures. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky captured this sentiment when he once quipped: “Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”


Omar Al-Ubaydli (@omareconomics) is a researcher at Derasat, Bahrain.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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