Much attention has been paid to the Trump administration’s shortsighted elimination of the White House Pandemic Response Team. The frustration with this decision is obvious: In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, we should have public health experts working with the federal government to tell us that social distancing is the best thing we can do to prevent infections and slow the strain on our health care system. But we also need behavioral scientists who can help advise on exactly how to get people to actually follow such instructions. The Obama administration created a White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, or SBST, tasked to use “behavioral science insights to better serve the American people” precisely for this reason. Unfortunately for the U.S., the Trump administration got rid of that too.
In its brief existence, the SBST tackled a broad range of issues, from fighting food insecurity to helping people save for retirement, through an evidence-based policy approach that drew inspiration from decision-making research. For example, they encouraged households to make their homes more energy-efficient by highlighting the immediate, concrete benefits of saving money on their power bills, rather than trying to appeal to the abstract, distant goal of slowing climate change. Crucially, SBST programs rarely tried to tell people what to do by throwing a bunch of facts and statistics at them—a current coronavirus-fighting approach that has only worked with a subset of the population. Instead, the SBST found ways to encourage better decision-making by capitalizing on the mental shortcuts we take and the biases that we have.
Though the SBST is no more, findings from decision-making research can still help us understand why people are not taking the threat of coronavirus seriously and how they could be convinced to follow social distancing recommendations. While epidemiologists are trying to model COVID-19’s true fatality rate—is it 3.4 percent? 1 percent?—decision scientists already know that people are generally pretty bad at objectively assessing probabilities. Famous behavioral economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky argued that people “discard events of extremely low probability,” simplifying minuscule percentages to basically zero. In other words, regardless of COVID-19’s true case fatality rate, our human brains are tempted to shortcut it to “super unlikely, so probably not me.”
Of course, even a 1 percent fatality rate means a devastating number of lives lost around the world. Effectively communicating the lethality of COVID-19 is paramount to convincing people to take the threat seriously. One strategy is to leverage the “identifiable victim effect,” in which people are more moved to help known individuals than unknown others (you’ve experienced this yourself if the coronavirus didn’t feel real until Tom Hanks tested positive). If folks downplay the seriousness of COVID-19’s fatality rate, we can ask them to scroll through the profile photos of a hundred of their friends on social media and imagine that one of them died after being exposed to the coronavirus. Facebook is especially good for facilitating this, as photos are more effective than just names for getting people to care (note that I do not recommend this exercise if you are already plenty concerned about COVID-19).
Data from China’s hard-hit Hubei province show that COVID-19’s case fatality rates vary widely with age, resulting in different messaging challenges for younger and older populations. People in their 20s appear to face just a 0.09 percent fatality rate, an even-more-near-zero number that, combined with that age group’s propensity for risk-taking and socializing, makes it hard to convince young adults to follow social distancing guidelines to save themselves. Instead, argues Oxford neuroethicist and Yale psychology professor Molly Crockett, it may be more persuasive to highlight how our actions can avoid causing harm to others. In a pair of studies, she found that participants (average age around 23 years) were more motivated to reduce the pain experienced by an anonymous stranger than to reduce their own pain. Here, the White House’s messaging in Monday’s press conference is in line with Crockett’s recommendation: Coronavirus task force coordinator Deborah Birx spoke of focusing on protecting older Americans and then specifically called for millennials to do their part to stop the virus.
In contrast to millennials’ relatively low risk of dying from COVID-19, older Americans face much higher case fatality rates. Yet there are also anecdotes of folks over 60 who are still climbing aboard cruise ships and refusing to stop close-quarters socializing. Kendra Seaman, a behavioral and brain science professor who runs the Aging Well Lab at the University of Texas at Dallas (and, full disclosure, a friend), believes that this is due to aging-related shifts in what people value. “Older adults value close social relationships as a way of maintaining positive emotion,” she says. Thus, it may be especially hard to convince older adults to give up social aspects of their lives that connect them to others.
Seaman’s research further shows that older adults, compared with younger adults, are more impatient when it comes to social and health rewards. Older adults would rather spend a small amount of time with a loved one or experience a minor improvement in health as soon as possible, rather than wait several weeks for greater amounts of time or even more improved health. In the case of social distancing to avoid the coronavirus, health and social goals are in direct conflict with each other—and if an individual does not believe in the health risk posed by the coronavirus, then the social goal easily wins out. So how do we get older adults to take this seriously? We could continuously remind them that they are at high risk of dying from COVID-19, but that’s likely to have negative side effects like increasing anxiety and fear. Instead, Seaman recommends focusing on explaining that there are ways to maintain social connections in the time of social distancing, which will help make the point that social goals do not have to be sacrificed to maintain health goals. As one of my colleagues suggested, we can reframe “social distancing” as “distance socializing” to emphasize our intentions to continue socializing from afar.
The SBST was founded with the belief that behavioral science insights could improve Americans’ lives through evidence-based policy. Right now, those insights could save American lives, but there’s no longer a direct way to pass such information to the White House. Here’s hoping that our next administration will see the value of seeking counsel from scientists and reinstate them in advisory positions.