Social norms in the age of social distancing


“One for all! All for one.” – Alexandre Dumas

With nearly four billion people in some sort of lockdown, we now live in a completely different social environment than we did four months ago. And our daily choices – staying at home, wearing masks, limiting our purchases, etc. – all affect the spread of the novel coronavirus. Our behavior will determine that of the virus.

How has the way we act changed and what can motivate us to change it further? Professor INSEAD Lucie Del Carpio describes how social norms adjust during the pandemic in a recent webinar in the Navigating the turbulence of COVID-19 series.

Clear message

Behavioral science can help in this uncharted territory, especially when it comes to getting the message across. “We are leading a massive global public health campaign,” said Del Carpio, “a campaign to slow the spread of the virus. And the recommendations are, in a sense, simple, but difficult to follow, especially for particular groups. Hand washing, wearing masks in public, reducing contact with the face and above all social distancing. ”

“Any individual behavior that limits contagion helps slow the spread of the virus. And we have to make people internalize this externality.

With these rapid behavior changes, effective public health messages without ambiguity are necessary. “We must convey the urgency of implementing these new behaviors. But we also need to maintain the prosocial motives on a large scale, which is very important. We need to stop thinking only of ourselves and thinking of ourselves, collectively, ”she explained. Governments have an important role. The combination of recommendations and messages about the risk associated with COVID-19 can have a huge impact.

She spoke of the need for persuasion: “If we are to implement these massive blockades, there is a huge amount of people who have to stay at home. It is impossible that the government alone can enforce them. We really have to persuade people to want to adopt certain behaviors. »The alignment of individual and collective interest is necessary to avoid misinformation that leads to risky behaviors, such as coronavirus parties. Linking civic duty to behavior works. To encourage the wearing of masks in public spaces, France National Academy of Medicine mentioned the motto of the Three Musketeers for unity, for example.

It seems persuasion is working. Del Carpio analyzed Google’s tracking information to find out about the global decline in exits. In the graph below we see how in countries with severe closures (dark blue) the compliance rate is serious, for example 80% of Indians stay at home. For partial containments or recommendations only, there is still a lot of compliance with the new standards. “People are reducing their mobility.

Non-inclusive standards

However, there are exceptions to compliance with the new standards. It is because of the uncertainty around the coronavirus – how many people are truly infected, what role asymptomatic people have in transmission – which “creates a sense of invisibility over the spread of the pandemic,” Del Carpio explained . This makes adopting new standards difficult for some.

Some communities have a lower rate of handwashing use because their access to water is limited. Other vulnerable groups find social distancing – stay a meter or two away from others outside your home – physically almost impossible. This is true not only in the developing world, but also for the working class in Europe and the United States. The following graph shows how much less mobility among wealthy Americans was after the lockdowns than those who had to keep going out to work.

For “these foreclosure measures in general,” said Del Carpio, “it’s much more difficult for certain groups to comply.” For them, “we must emphasize the advantages for the beneficiary of taking care, but also the emphasis placed on the protection of others, in accordance with moral values”. We may also need other measures to help them comply (transfers to the poorest segments, etc.).

In the current health crisis, many people feel threatened and fearful. Del Carpio warned that these emotions “can vary our perceptions of risk, and this can lead to discrimination or feelings of prejudice towards others. And we need to fix it. “

Social context is important, but culture is also an important factor. For some, it’s not a question of available space, but of social norms about how we should be physically close to each other.

Pro-social compliance

Italy is one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, where very close conversations are the norm. Del Carpio spoke of a recent article which measured civic capital with Italian data.

“Civic capital is good for acting collectively, for contributing to the public good. In situations like this, it might actually cause you to completely change your behavior and be able to respect social distancing better than others. “

“In societies where civic capital is very high, people like to interact with each other. We see it in the mobility patterns. They probably meet often. They are good neighbors. They interact. And then, what we see as the recommendations come in, as the news of the epidemic comes in, these regions with high social capital start to change their behavior very quickly, ”explained Del Carpio. By thinking collectively, societies with civic capital can make difficult behaviors – like not visiting elderly relatives – more manageable and inspiring compliance faster.

The article assessed civic capital, which relates to social norms, through three different measures: blood donation, a survey of other people’s trust, and newspaper readership.

More community spirit

Del Carpio pointed out that most citizens of locked countries comply with recommendations or orders (depending on the severity of the lockdown). There are, however, loud protesters who reject the new social norms.

Regarding demonstrators in the we and other countries, she said, “Obviously people are tired of not being able to earn an income… these are hard cases to deal with. Overall what helps is giving more information but at the same time at this particular point I think the app might be relevant as well. I think we also need to counter all these movements with all the positive experiences that have arisen… I think we still have the tools and the ability to lead these [people] toward Cooperation and towards the right measures that we all want to respect.

Future standards

How will the standards change in the future? Once the lockdowns are over and we are all out together, we must accept that information on the destination of the outbreak is necessary for the public good. The collection of this data is now largely handled by mobile apps in South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore – countries that have managed to flatten the curve of the initial epidemic. Around the world, countries are considering options for applications that use GPS and / or Bluetooth to collect information on mobile devices that are in close proximity to each other. Big companies like Apple and Google are also working on it. Contact tracing applications have clear advantages in terms of accurate information on contagion rates.

For these apps to work properly, they need a massive utilization rate (around 60%). Having said that, apparently only 30 to 40 percent will reduce the spread of contagion. Of course, this raises some concerns about individual rights. Del Carpio reflected: “Can we give some of our privacy so that we can save lives? I think this is a very important question.

She is an advisor for the launch of a government contact tracing application in Peru. “Contact tracing is both a community protection device and a public policy tool,” said Del Carpio.

The compromise of digital tracing “allows us to map the epidemic. It gives a lot of interesting information for public policies, for health policy and for citizens to adapt their behavior. But it is not free. It comes at the cost of giving out personal information.

As with other standards communications, governments should consider the tone to use when sending messages to someone who has recently been in close proximity to a person who has tested positive. Will they get a scary message saying “You may be infected! Or something a little more favorable?

New behaviors will be expected from citizens receiving a warning. They will need to receive encouragement. With the support of the health system, it will become possible to generate compliance and demand certain actions from people, for example, self-isolation. “And of course, for that to happen, it takes a lot of trust and civic or social capital, in order to be ready to share your private information for the greater good,” Del Carpio explained.

“Behavioral economists, in general, believe in the interplay between many motivations that impact human behavior. There are intrinsic motivations (like altruism). There are extrinsic motivations (or incentives). There are also reputational motivations, ”she said. “And the cool thing about that is that in a way, several behavioral norms can emerge as a balance and that is up to us. If everyone conforms to this behavioral social distancing, then the defector is going to have a. some stigma. We can create good standards to help us deal with this pandemic.

INSEAD’s “Navigating the Turbulence of COVID-19” webinar series features expert contributions on key issues surrounding pandemic control and current countermeasures around the world. Register here.

Lucie Del Carpio is assistant professor of economics at INSEAD.

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