Future Tense

How to Use Psychology to Convince People to Take Social Distancing Seriously

Straight-up berating people with facts about COVID-19 won’t work. Taking advantage of social norms might.

A crowded bar.
Don’t do this. Getty Images Plus

As COVID-19 cases rapidly spread across the U.S., we’ve experienced rapid social disruption. Schools, libraries, and businesses are closed; bands’ tours and sports leagues are on hiatus; experts recommend we wash our hands frequently and, most drastically, minimize contact with others through social distancing.

Many people are following these guidelines by working from home if they can, canceling trips, and putting up with chapped hands, but others view these precautions as an overreaction. Some have even defiantly run toward the exact things experts warn against, taking advantage of lower travel fares, or insisting on dancing it out at an enormous senior community. Friends tell me about their relatives or colleagues who are still going on vacation or packing into crowded bars and wonder how they can be so callous. Surely they’ve heard the news—why is it that some folks are hunkered down for the long run while others are living life as usual?

When you know people who aren’t following guidelines to stay home, it’s tempting to try to beat them down with facts. But getting them to follow through on hand-washing or social distancing isn’t necessarily a matter of logic—it’s a matter of heart. We humans are highly sensitive to social norms, and it’s confusing when they suddenly change. It’s hard to accept these sudden recommended changes to our routines, and the open-endedness is horrifying—or even worse, the prospect that this could be the new normal, at least until a vaccine is developed. We’d be wise to leverage what we know about the irrational ways in which humans think and act, and what we might do to mitigate those challenges.

There is a role for facts here, if you present them in a way that is directly applicable to consequences for individuals or communities. It’s easy to brush off the virus as something abstract happening far, far away, especially if the virus hasn’t yet reached where you live. There’s a careful balance to be struck here; many people are already extremely anxious about the virus, and inciting panic helps no one, but there’s evidence that when individuals perceive risk to themselves, they are more likely to take action. For instance, when it comes to getting a flu shot, people are most likely to take action if they think there’s higher risk of getting the flu, or if they think taking action might alleviate some of their own worry about getting sick.

While scientists are just beginning their studies on coronavirus attitudes, there’s some early evidence that perceived risk is correlated with action. Gretchen Chapman, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says that she ran a quick pilot study asking people what they were doing to reduce their risk, and those who assessed lower risks associated with coronavirus reported they were washing their hands less. (This risk assessment also appears to be tied to political beliefs as well. Chapman says Donald Trump supporters in her study gave lower assessments of risk, and another survey from Quinnipiac University found that Republicans were generally less concerned about the virus than Democrats.)

But it’s hard to get across to some people that they could get sick—and that strategy might not work at all if that person is heavily invested in the narrative that all of it is overblown. In that case, some have resorted to appealing to different facts: that precautions like hand-washing and social distancing aren’t about you as an individual but your responsibility to the community. One graphic has been making the rounds to demonstrate the concept of “flattening the curve”: Our collective action could slow the spread of the virus and protect more vulnerable members of the community.

Whether that appeal to the community is effective depends on people’s worldview. The extent to which people are willing to make sacrifices in their own daily routines is inevitably tied up with people’s beliefs about helping others, according to Chapman. “If your worldview is that you’re always asked to make sacrifices and you never get anything out of it, maybe you don’t want to comply with this request,” she says. “But if you have a worldview that tells you it’s important to help others, then maybe you’re happy to make these sacrifices.”

People believe their decisions reflect on them personally, and people may have specific values they see as self-defining. One quote that stuck out to me was from a man named Sal Gentile, a 70-year-old living in Florida retirement community the Villages. “We worked many decades to now have the privilege of being older. … My love for quality of life is more important to me than being rattled by a TV station,” he told a Washington Post as part of a story about seniors who refuse to practice social distancing. This implies two important values: that he feels he’s earned his lifestyle and that he’s unafraid of the news reports.

In these cases, establishing social norms through a sense of belonging can be a strong motivator. “You’re looking around to see what people are doing,” says Chapman. “If you take your cues from other people, you might be more inclined to take strong action yourself because you see other people doing it.” You’re also inferring risk from other people’s actions; you assume that others are acting in a way that’s rational based on the risks. One school district sees that another has canceled classes for weeks and feels it’s right to follow suit. One sports league pauses its season, and the others decide it wouldn’t be safe to go on with theirs. You see your friends posting Instagram stories of themselves sitting on the couch in pajamas and eating chips with the hashtag #SocialDistancing, and you think, if they think it’s best to stay in, I guess it’s safer for me to stay in, too.

We’re most likely to emulate people we spend the most time with, or who have similar identities. Personal connections and anecdotes influence us more than abstract data; you might feel more freaked out than usual if a friend has self-quarantined, or you might be more inclined to cancel your own vacation plans if you know your three closest friends all did the same this week. If you feel strongly about convincing people in your life to take precautions, reaching out and having a conversation can be a good first step toward establishing new social norms during this pandemic. When reaching out to someone you know has different beliefs from you, it can be tempting to shame them or become frustrated if they’re not “seeing the facts,” but the key to having any difficult conversation is to listen and try to connect by finding things you do agree on.

Even peer pressure from tangentially related sources can motivate changes in social norms. In a now-classic study, hotel guests saw a sign in their room asking them to reuse their towels to save water. Signs that generated social pressure—“Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment; 75% of guests who stayed in this room participated”—were significantly more likely to convince guests to participate than generic appeals to “save the environment.”

Once people are convinced to try social distancing and vigorous hand-washing, we’ll need to reinforce those behaviors so people continue them—with major changes to social norms come major temptation to stray back to our usual routines. Personally, I’ve found it hard to be the squeaky wheel among my friends and have wavered about what’s appropriate. Is it overly paranoid to suggest we cancel our dinner reservation? Will my friends think I’m being ridiculous?

It may sound silly, but one way to encourage people to keep on following precautions is to give them lots of positive reinforcement, especially if they’re low-risk individuals who stand to see little direct benefit from changing up their usual routine. We can capitalize on what psychologists call selfish altruism, the idea that we act generously because it makes us feel good. It may seem awkward to congratulate people for private, unseen activities like hand-washing or not going somewhere, but there are ways to build group norms that can motivate people to keep doing what they’re doing.

These can be specific to interests you and your loved ones share. One delightful example of this is the many hand-washing memes spreading online, encouraging people to sing for at least 20 seconds while they scrub. Among my favorites is the Law and Order theme song, which I mentioned to Chapman. “That can build group identity!” she says. “It’s like, ‘We’re the Law and Order fans, and we’ll wash our hands to the Law and Order theme song, and that’s part of who we are now.” For me, knowing that millions of people might also be diligently lathering up while singing Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” to themselves actually does motivate me to stick with the whole 20 seconds, even if it feels like overkill.

Beyond encouraging and reinforcing precautions, it might be wise to consider how our psychology can present challenges for future outbreaks, given that scientists predict that COVID-19 might be with us for months or years to come. In a best-case scenario, the precautions we’re taking will work and slow down the virus’s spread—which many might interpret as evidence that the virus wasn’t so bad after all, and result in less trust in taking necessary precautions during the next public health crisis. Susan Joslyn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, studies people’s responses to weather forecasting and finds that “false alarms” in major weather events, like tornado warnings or hurricane evacuations, result in a loss of trust. If you evacuate five times and nothing happens, you might believe the forecasts mean nothing; if you socially distance for two months and the virus never reaches your town, you might believe it was a false alarm, too, even if that social distancing is what kept the virus from taking hold. The same holds true with focusing on the worst-case scenario.

Joslyn described a tactic that can build trust in weather predictions, which might also help during future outbreaks: including uncertainty in predictions. When it comes to weather, people know that exact precision is impossible, so they find forecasts that give a range more trustworthy—for instance, a forecast with a daytime high between 40 and 47 is more trustworthy than one that simply says the high will be 47. “They know you can’t really predict that, so they think you’re kind of overstating the case,” says Joslyn. While the predictions for coronavirus are much more complicated, estimates of a range of risks could help build public trust, no matter what the outcome.

It’s a long road ahead, and we’ll be grappling with new coronavirus data and questions of risk and action for months to come. While those numbers and analyses will shine new light on our decision-making, it’s important to remember that our brains are not perfect computers; we’ll be making irrational judgments all the while. “It’s about so much more than just the information,” says Chapman.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.