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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 8°C
Behavioural expert Dr Shane Timmons says our internal bias can dictate our perception of shutdown compliance.

IT’S EASY TO feel like everyone else in society has stopped following the Covid-19 advice. News articles warn that traffic volumes are steadily increasing, buses are carrying more passengers and on-street cameras are detecting rises in footfall. According to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the last few weeks, complacency is the new enemy. 

Complacency would be dangerous, but how much of a concern should these reports be? Headlines tend to present the change in behaviour compared to the height of the lockdown.

Initial compliance was extremely high: traffic, use of public transport and footfall dropped dramatically. This means that any percentage increase could seem large, even if the actual increase is low.

If just five people used a bus route during the lockdown, a 20% increase would mean six people now use that route.

What we need instead are comparisons to pre-lockdown levels. Looking at these numbers, movement metrics are still a fraction of the “old normal”.  

All in the mind?

There are a handful of psychological tendencies that might make us misinterpret the evidence in favour of thinking that noncompliance is more commonplace than it is. First, we’re likely to have lower expectations for others to comply than ourselves.

The “above-average effect” in psychology describes how most of us tend to think that we’re above-average in good qualities. Most of us think we’re better drivers, more intelligent and better-looking than average.

Of course, a majority being better than average is usually impossible. Survey data shows this same pattern when it comes to Covid-19 restrictions – a large majority of people report being highly likely to continue complying with restrictions, but have much lower expectations that others will.

If we expect other people to comply less with the guidelines, “confirmation bias” describes how we overweight any evidence in favour of our expectations and fail to consider evidence that might contradict our pre-existing beliefs. 

We also more readily find excuses for our own bad behaviour than we do for others, known as the “fundamental attribution error”. We blame the situation or the environment if we behave in less desirable ways, but blame something central about the person when someone else transgresses.

If I break the five-kilometre restriction during my cycle or make a second supermarket trip because I forgot the tinned tomatoes earlier, I can think of multiple excuses to justify my actions. But if I see someone else going on a second supermarket run, well they clearly just don’t respect the advice we’ve been given. 

We notice the non-compliance

Despite our expectations of others, compliance with public health advice happened quickly and we had to adjust rapidly to the “new normal”. Standing two metres apart while queuing for the supermarket, giving other walkers a breadth of two metres when passing on the footpath or simply staying indoors more than usual are expected behaviours.

Now, anyone who doesn’t follow these norms stands out. If someone reaches across you in the supermarket, you’ll notice it much more than you would have two months ago – but what you won’t remember are all those people who didn’t reach across you, who filled their trollies while wearing masks and gloves and respected the two metre guidelines.

Those behaviours that are now unremarkable are less affected by this “salience bias” for non-compliance. Even more simply, you’re unlikely to think about all the people who are not there because they’re staying at home. The instances of unusual behaviour stand out and, paradoxically, can lead us to overestimate their frequency.  

To make this worse, reaching across you in the supermarket or not respecting the social distancing guidelines doesn’t just represent the violation of a norm. It also signals that the other person isn’t taking things as seriously as you are, that perhaps they’re not making the same sacrifices as you.

Monitoring others

The fight against the Covid-19 pandemic requires a coordinated effort. Everyone must make some sacrifices so that we’re all better off. When faced with these kinds of “collective action problems”, we’re psychologically wired to be very good at detecting when other people aren’t playing their part.

Many of us are likely to be what behavioural economists call “conditional co-operators”. We’re happy to comply and make sacrifices for the greater good, as long as everyone else does too. If we start to believe that other people aren’t making the same sacrifices – either because of statistical tricks or our potentially biased perceptions of what we see – it feels very unfair and we’re more likely to give up. 

Normally these kinds of psychological tendencies are helpful. It’s good for our self-esteem to view ourselves positively and being able to spot unusual behaviour in our environment can be protective. Being alert to when others don’t contribute to a collective effort prevents us from being taken advantage of.

If we’re trying to maintain our compliance with public health advice while battling lockdown fatigue, however, these psychological tendencies are counterproductive and potentially dangerous.

If we think other people aren’t making the same sacrifices, the instinctive response for many of us is to lose our resolve and become complacent too.

The more common we perceive non-compliance to be, the more likely it is our collective effort so far start to unravel. Because of the nature of disease transmission, it becomes more and more important for each individual to follow the public health advice, the more they perceive that the resolve of others is waning.

Sticking to the rules when we think others aren’t goes against most of our psychological instincts for dealing with a collective action problem but, as restrictions begin to be lifted, could ultimately save lives.

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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