The pandemic has entered a murky phase and social norms are changing rapidly, which I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Many people test at home, or not at all. Here in Vermont, where I live, you can get a type of PCR test that can be done at home. But state officials here and abroad are no longer carefully monitoring the results of those tests, meaning the true spread of the coronavirus in the U.S. population remains unclear (SN: 04/22/22).
For the past few weeks, rumors of a stealth wave of COVID-19 have been circulating both in the media and on my Twitter feed. Now cases and hospitalizations are rising, as are levels of coronavirus in sewage. This suggests that more cases, and ultimately deaths, could follow.
Even with increasing workloads and a vaccination rate which has stagnated at around 66% of the eligible population, the American public has largely begun to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. People are getting rid of their masks, eating out, going to concerts, traveling to remote places, having big weddings indoors and doing all the social things people tend to do when left at home. themselves.
The 2,600 people White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner the end of last month is a good example. Just like host Trevor Noah prophesiedmany in attendance have since tested positive for COVID-19, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and reporters from NBC, ABC, the Washington Post, Politico and other media. And those who almost certainly knew better – flag the White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha – nonetheless made an appearance.
A myriad of human behavioral quirks undoubtedly underlie these arguably poor choices. The Decision Lab website contains a list of biases and mental shortcuts people use to make decisions. The one that caught my eye was social norms. This particular quirk describes behaviors that people deem appropriate in a given situation.
I started thinking about social norms by writing an article about how to get people in the United States to eat less meat when the practice is so, well, normal (SN: 5/11/22). Social norms, my research has informed me, vary depending on the group one hangs out with and their environment. “We quickly change our point of view depending on the context of the situation we find ourselves in,” writes marketing expert John Laurence on the Decision Lab site.
I might have found this fast switching idea suspicious if I hadn’t recently experienced the phenomenon. My husband’s Disney-phile brother and his wife had been planning a family reunion at Disney World in Florida since the pandemic began. And I, some kind of curmudgeon reluctant to feel magic, long ago agreed to go on the condition that other people do all the planning. And so it was, after multiple COVID-related postponements, that my kids, husband, and I landed in Orlando on a blisteringly hot April day.
Normal Disney, I soon learned, bore little resemblance to normal Vermont. It was evident from people’s attire. All around me, parents and children dressed in coordinated outfits and matching Mickey Mouse ears. (My apologies to my kids – your mom missed the fashion memo.)
Social norms almost certainly arose to foster cohesion among our earliest ancestors, who needed solidarity to hunt large prey, share limited resources, and ward off predators and enemy tribes. Intra-group norms also provide humans with a sense of belonging, which research shows is vital to our overall health. A meta-analysis of over 3.4 million people followed for an average of seven years showed that the likelihood of dying during the study period increased by 26% for participants who reported feeling lonely (SN: 03/29/20).
It is therefore not surprising that one of the most powerful drivers of human behavior is the search for belonging. At Disney, that quest means blocking out the reality that exists just outside the fiefdom. Wars, climatic crises, political fights and others have no place in these magical walls. Nor are reminders of a global health crisis which, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization, has so far killed nearly 15 million people global.
Within the walls of Disney, crowds of mostly tourists without masks packed on iconic rides and in restaurants. Halfway through our trip, a judge in Florida ruled that masks could not be required on public transportation, no masks should be seen on buses carrying people to the Magic Kingdom and the Epcot Center. And everywhere, all the time, people seemed to be coughing, sniffling, or blowing their noses.
As a science journalist covering COVID-19, I certainly knew I had to keep my mask on. And yet, my resolve quickly faltered. My kids commented that no one else was masking up, not even my parents who usually followed the rules. Putting on my mask meant confessing that I didn’t revel in sparkle, glitter and magic and making it all too obvious to my beloved extended family that I didn’t, in fact, belong. I kept my face covering in my pocket.
Humans’ drive for conformity isn’t all bad. In a now classic study from the 1980s, researchers sought to reduce water use in drought-prone California. Signs at the University of California, Santa Cruz asking students to turn off the shower while soaping up only led to 6% compliance. The researchers therefore recruited male students to serve as standard-setting role models. These models hung out in the communal shower until they heard another student come in, then soaped up without water. When a model soaped up without a shower, roughly half of the involuntary students have also started turning off their taps when soaping. Compliance jumped to 67% when two models followed the panel.
But conformity can also distort the way we make decisions. For example, in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was still new, researchers asked 23,000 people in Mexico to predict how a fictional woman named Mariana would decide whether or not to attend a birthday party. Most attendees thought Mariana should not attend. But when they read a sentence suggesting that their friends would attend or that others approved of the party, their predictions that Mariana would also go increased by 25%, according to researchers PLOS ONE.
My decision to conform to Disney normal ended predictably – with a positive COVID-19 test. After weeks of coughing and sleepless nights, however, my frustration is directed less at myself than at the political leaders who so blithely ignore both epidemiology and human behavior research and tell us to live as if it was in 2019. It is not. It’s not 2020 or 2021 either. It’s the murky year known as 2022. And the rules of behavior that reinforce our social norms – such as models who refrain from large indoor unmasked gatherings and leaders who uphold mask mandates on public transit to protect the most vulnerable — should reflect that liminal space.