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Opinion: 'The pandemic isn't down to one reckless group - it's because of the contagiousness of Covid-19'

Behavioural expert Dr Shane Timmons says that disapproval from the right sources is the key to fighting non-compliance.

Dr Shane Timmons

DESPITE THE CONSISTENT rise of new Covid-19 infections and the threat of further restrictions, social media seems to be filled with examples of people disregarding public health advice.

It’s happening across the country: we’ve seen crowds dancing in the streets of Killarney, some people raving at a flat complex in Dublin and others gathering to drink at the Spanish Arch in Galway.

There’s good reason these events have attracted people’s attention. Talking, laughing and singing with a large group of people while not maintaining social distance nor wearing a mask gives the coronavirus many of its ideal conditions for spreading.

But could the amplified media coverage of these transgressions and our subsequent online outrage further benefit the virus?

Before considering some of the psychological consequences of extreme examples of non-compliance, it’s important to recognise that outrage is the expected (and at least somewhat deserved) response to these events.

Once we’re faced with the prospect of having to make personal sacrifices for the benefit of the larger group (known as a “collective action problem” in behavioural science), any failure for others to play their part can quickly trigger outrage.

In the early stages of the pandemic, we recognised it as a collective action problem. We knew that if everyone made some sacrifices – to our freedoms, our social lives and even our livelihoods – we would all benefit.

There was little legal threat required for millions of us to follow the “stay at home” advice issued in late March. We cooperated with it for weeks.

Of course, because of the nature of the virus and how it transmits, some people needed to make greater sacrifices than others and some people benefited more from these sacrifices. But everyone played their part to flatten the curve.

Outrage and punishment 

Having made these sacrifices, seeing others disregard the simple behaviours we need to prevent the resurgence of the virus is outrageous to the majority cooperators.

This outrage has a function. The evidence from behavioural science experiments shows that some degree of punishment for people who don’t comply with what’s best for the group is vital for sustaining cooperation.

While most people will recognise the sense in cooperating once the strategy is clearly communicated, some will need the threat of a direct risk associated with not following the rules.

Without any threat of punishment, free-riders who get to reap the benefits of everyone else’s compliance while not making sacrifices themselves can undermine the collective effort. This can lead others (known as “conditional cooperators”) to throw in the towel – even if they recognise that doing so is a poor strategy for their own wellbeing.

From this perspective, sharing your outrage at young people gathering in Galway should help in the effort to control the spread of the virus: it sends a signal that anyone doing similar will not be looked on favourably.

Social disapproval is an effective form of punishment that evolved long before social media was around to facilitate it.

Digital and social media, however, risk undermining the function of social disapproval because of some important conditions that are necessary for punishment to be effective. One is that the punishment for breaking the rules should fit the crime; it needs to be proportionate. Most of the time this is straightforward, as punishing others can come at a cost.

However, there’s little cost to expressing outrage and social disapproval online – far less psychological cost than doing so in person. There’s also evidence that we sometimes express our social disapproval of others primarily as a signal to others of our own moral values, with punishment as a side-effect. We’re less likely to punish moral transgressions if no one else is watching.

The convenience and readily available audience that social media provides makes it easy for expressions of outrage to reach their own virality. If it hits levels disproportionate to the violation, the punishment is less likely to have the desired effect. Transgressors can brush off disapproval as over-reaction.

Disproportionate outrage also imposes a ceiling on the level of disapproval that can be expressed for worse transgressions: hundreds gathering outside to drink is risky, but similar events occurring indoors with poor ventilation, as reported in some hotels and house parties, are far riskier. This important detail is lost if all transgressions face the same level of online outrage.

Age dynamics

A second condition for effective punishment is the source. Older people disapproving of risks taken by the young will have less impact on correcting behaviour than if the disapproval comes from friends and peers. These between-group dynamics are important.

We need a strong overall group identity to sustain cooperation in a collective action problem, but exaggerated punishment of specific subgroups can deepen divides and make it easy to forget the common goal and difficulties everyone has faced. In particular, the data show that young people have faced greater deficits in wellbeing, unemployment and loss of social connection than other groups.

To be condemned as a whole for the actions of a minority while having these costs ignored understandably risks undermining young people’s motivation to continue to make these sacrifices, particularly given that others are more likely to reap the benefits.

That said, a majority of young people are probably likely to persevere with their adherence to minimising risk, because of their concern for infecting vulnerable members of their family and friends.

But amplified media coverage of transgressions poses risks to the resolve of other age groups too. Repeated examples of isolated instances of non-compliance can lead us to think that non-compliance is more common than it is.

When we think and make judgements, we often rely on mental shortcuts or rules of thumb. One of these shortcuts is the “availability heuristic”, whereby we judge the probability of an event based on the ease at which we can think of an example.

For example, if asked whether there are more words that have the letter K as their first or their third letter, more people will say the first. It’s simply easier to think of words that begin with K. By repeatedly highlighting extreme examples of non-compliance, digital and social media risk making it seem like young people as a whole are far less compliant than the data suggests.

Although age discrepancies in compliance do exist, these differences are small (but potentially widening). Tracking data since the beginning of the pandemic show that there are greater similarities across all subgroups of the population than there are differences.

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Thinking that extreme instances of recklessness are reflective of large groups of society has further beyond compliance with health advice. A report published in August by my team, the Behavioural Research Unit at the ESRI, highlighted how the fear of stigmatisation could be a barrier to engagement with the test-and-trace system, as people believe their close contacts are likely to identify them.

Younger people, in particular, are more worried about being identified. The Acting CMO, Dr Ronan Glynn, reported recently that some young people are concerned about naming their close contacts for contact tracing purposes.

It wouldn’t be surprising, for example, for any young person in Galway to be concerned about phoning their GP with potential symptoms, for fear that they could be associated with the Spanish Arch gathering.

It’s important to remember for anyone experiencing symptoms that, while it’s important to minimise risk where possible, the pandemic arose not because of recklessness by one group of people but because of the contagiousness of the coronavirus. Regardless of past behaviour, contacting a GP quickly if you think you might have symptoms is the responsible thing to do (and it’s free).

We’re faced with the complex collective action problem of pandemic management until medical science provides a solution, but this will take months at least. Until then, behavioural science has lessons for how we can sustain collective compliance. A clearly communicated and rationalised strategy for suppressing the virus is vital and we need to sustain our strong collective identity.

Social disapproval of non-compliance is important for maintaining the high levels of cooperation we’ve seen in Ireland, but it should be proportionate to the transgression and come from appropriate sources.

Young people who take risks with the virus by gathering in crowds to drink are deserving of some disapproval, but this condemnation will be more effective if it’s the majority of compliant young people who keep their friends in check.

Allowing outrageous content to cloud our recognition of the sacrifices made by everyone risks undermining the collective effort so far and fostering further conditions beneficial to contagion.

Dr Shane Timmons is a Research Officer with the Behavioural Research Unit at the ESRI but writes in a personal capacity. 

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Dr Shane Timmons

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