Social norms can spread like a virus

For 90% of Americans now ordered to stay home (from 20% just a week ago) to avoid the risk of catching and spreading the new coronavirus, keeping a strict distance from others is starting to look like the new normal. Every other conversation is peppered with observations from friends, family and colleagues about how much has changed in such a short time and how easily we have found ourselves sliding into new patterns. As the standards of physical distancing change at the speed of light, we are surprised to find ourselves outraged at the sight of a grocery store worker without gloves, or overwhelmed by a weirdly visceral reaction upon seeing a group of people holding each other. within six feet of each other, when just a few weeks ago these scenes were completely normal.

But how did we go from our daily life as creatures used to being in groups to a physiological response to a beach full of people: pounding hearts, swollen nostrils?

Large-scale changes in physical distancing are due to changing social norms

These changes in landslide behavior are not due to law enforcement or policing (which has been minimal in the United States); rather, they are due to changes in social standards that have accompanied the closure of businesses and the sheltering of recommendations. They are the direct result of social proof and peer pressure. Indeed, social norms can have a strong influence on behavior – not only in response to what others do, but also to what others find desirable. Humans take inspiration from others to understand what is socially acceptable and adapt their behavior to make sure they fit in. The behavior can be contagious, as researcher Jamil Zaki has shown with the diffusion of generosity and benevolence. And in unfamiliar situations, or times of uncertainty, people are particularly sensitive to behavioral cues from others. The coronavirus pandemic outbreak is a clear case of misunderstanding and uncertainty, and it’s no surprise that new social norms around physical distancing are emerging. quickly to seize.

Social norms around distancing have been communicated in two main ways: approval of dominant positive behaviors (“I’m staying home. You should too”) and disapproval of negative but increasingly rare behaviors (“Look. those morons at the beach who didn’t get the memo ”).

Approval of positive behavior reinforces new norms

The first type of message, establishing the positive social norm of shelter in place, is seen in the media in cases like the New York Times photographic article “The great void”, Which features normally overcrowded places around the world that have been virtually abandoned. The photos are hauntingly beautiful and they clearly send the message that everyone stays in the mood.

On top of that, there are countless examples of social media, where influencers of all brands are encouraging their followers to stay home. This is how social media can be used for good: as sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis and political scientist James Fowler demonstrate in their book “Connected: the surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our livesSocial networks can disseminate ideas and have an impact on behavior change through the messages of social norms they embody.

It is important to note that different sources of messages can attract people differently, notes behavior specialist Eugen Dimant. The audience that will respond most to The exhortation of Arnold Schwarzenegger is different from the listening audience Disease Control Centers. And these audiences are different from the 210 million fans blocked on Cristiano Ronaldo Instagram or the two million people who “liked” the photo of Taylor Swift her cat in quarantine. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to persuasion. But in this rare time in history, there are converging examples of a wide range of influencers all echoing the same sentiment (Stay Home) in different ways. This diversity of voices amplified the megaphone of expert epidemiologists and Health workers, creating an impact far greater than a single voice could.

Disapproval of negative behavior reinforces new norms

The second type of communication of social norms is the disapproval of those who violate the new norms. In what we called “quarantine shame», The minority of people who transgress and have not yet adopted behaviors of physical distancing are targets of indignation, treated as defectors in a game of public goods. Social responsibility and productive shame can be an effective way to change behavior, as people generally try to behave in a way that will be accepted by their peers. In the case of the novel coronavirus, the majority (physical distancers) send a clear message to the minority (non-distancers) that their behavior is unacceptable to society as a whole.

Social approval of positive behavior and disapproval of negative behavior can work together to promote new norms and make those norms spread like the virus they are fighting. But unlike the coronavirus, the contagious nature of physical distancing standards can have life-threatening consequences – results we may not be too far away from achieving. Damon Centola’s research shows that the tipping point for the spread of social norms can be as low as 25% adoption to reshape society.

The tipping point has been crossed

Indeed, it looks like we’ve already passed the tipping point of the behavior change needed to flatten the curve and buy time for health systems to prepare for the worst of the coming COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence of digital fever tracking across the United States gives hope that the infection rate is starting to slow down due to physical estrangement and shelter behaviors. We used the strategies of a virus to fight the novel coronavirus; social norms established by approving positive behaviors and disapproving of negative behaviors successfully prevent the spread of the virus. And if the famous XKCD is correct, the the coronavirus is shaking in its boots.

About Marjorie C. Hudson

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