Until there’s a cure social distancing will have to continue

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We have done what was necessary. We stayed at home as much as possible. We have kept a distance from people outside of our household. All to mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Google data shows how large the behavioral change has been: massive reductions in retail and recreational activities, public transit usage, and visits to workplaces. This has produced a bizarro world, with pictures of Venetian squares emptied of tourists, and negative prices for crude oil as demand dried up.

Obeying the social distancing directives did not come cheap. Many people have lost income. Everybody has lost freedom. Employment has been hit hard, with over 22 million people in the US alone losing their jobs. And still, people have complied, at least thus far. 

Unfortunately, this is just the start. Until there is a vaccine or effective cure, or at least we have a better testing capacity, some form of social distancing will have to continue. A recent study has estimated that such measures remain necessary until 2022, and maybe even until 2024. Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, explained Sunday that “social distancing will be with us through the summer.” 

What humanity has achieved is like a January crash diet, great to lose those extra pounds from Christmas. But now we need to transition to a less radical proximity diet, one that we can actually keep up.

To achieve sustainable social distancing, we need to understand what has made people comply with the measures implemented so far. 

Fortunately, there is data. Together with colleagues, I have conducted a study of what motivated Americans to comply with stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures.

Remarkably, we found that at the time of the survey, April 3, fear did not matter. Americans who had a higher fear for their health, or the health of their loved ones, were not more likely to comply. Nor did fear of punishment play a positive role in achieving compliance. People who thought the punishment would be severe or certain were not more likely to comply. 

Two factors did impact compliance. First, we saw that the practical context was vital. The better Americans were able to follow the measures the more they complied. And the less opportunity they had to break the rules the more they adhered to social distancing. So, for instance, people who could work from home stayed at home more. And folks who could still hang out with friends were more likely to do so and at an unsafe distance. Here, the closing of public venues, schools, and businesses have been central, as this has made it much harder to interact with others.

Second, moral and social motivation sustains compliant behavior. The more people saw others follow the measures, the more likely they were to do so as well. And the more people thought that obeying these measures was morally warranted, the more they complied. 

So, the largest behavioral change of our times came through a combination of the right circumstances and people’s own intrinsic motivations. 

Unfortunately, these drivers behind our social distancing achievements are highly fragile. The recent protests against stay-at-home orders show that two weeks after our study there is clear resistance against the measures and that intrinsic motivation is slipping. This weekend, Californian beaches crowded with people, no longer willing to stay indoors, prompting Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to write on Twitter, “We won’t let one weekend undo a month of progress.” 

Meanwhile, mounting economic and social costs are forcing authorities to consider reopening society and the economy. And when that happens, more people will start to enter the public space, making it easier to come into proximity with others. And when more people will start to see a return to normal social behavior, the more likely they will follow suit. If that happens, it is unlikely that messages of fear, either about the virus or about sanctions, will work better than they did earlier when the pandemic was still new. 

This can result in a cascade effect, where swathes of people will give up on social distancing. And when that happens, all the hard-won success will be for naught. As Dr. Birx, the White House pandemic coordinator, explained, “There’s no magic bullet. There’s no magic vaccine or therapy. It’s just behaviors. Each of our behaviors, translating into something that changes the course of this viral pandemic.”

To stay the course, we must keep a united front in support of social distancing and resist the temptation to ease the current measures too soon. There is no quick fix, and we must stop listening to pied pipers promising one. 

Benjamin van Rooij is a global professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, and also professor of law and society at the University of Amsterdam, School of Law who studies how rules shape human and organizational behavior.  


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