COVID-19: What have we learned about human behavior in 2020? - opinion

Were the expectations regarding compliance realistic? If we look at the science, the answer is an unequivocal “no.”

POLICE OFFICERS try to convince passersby to abide by pandemic-related restrictions, in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Monday. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
POLICE OFFICERS try to convince passersby to abide by pandemic-related restrictions, in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square on Monday.
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
Without a doubt, we learned a lot about “compliance,” the act of getting people to do what we think they should be doing. When it comes to the pandemic, compliance involved wearing masks, distancing from others and not gathering in large groups. And what we in fact learned is what we should have already known. Getting people to comply is not easy.
The pandemic has shown us how complicated simple things can be. Although many people did follow the rules, many, many others simply did not or were not able to be consistent. They could not keep away from others, could not keep away from family, could not wear a mask properly and could not disconnect socially. Some people did not believe, some people could not believe, and some people mimicked others and behaved as they saw others around them behaving.
On the face of it, noncompliance may be a source of annoyance and irritation for some, especially those who do make an effort to comply. But if we look at the scientific literature regarding adherence and compliance, none of this should have at all been surprising. All the more reason to question why, with an event like a pandemic that has so many national health implications, we were not better prepared to implement policies that would deal with the reality that compliance would be far from perfect. The lack of a sensible plan on how to respond no doubt contributed to worsening infection rates and, as a consequence, created a catastrophic economic collapse for so many.
Were the expectations regarding compliance realistic? If we look at the science, the answer is an unequivocal “no.” People who know smoking is bad continue to smoke, people who should keep to a diet continue to cheat, people who should exercise sit on the couch and people who should take medication often set it aside. But it is not only with respect to health that guidelines are not followed. How often do we follow the speed limit to the letter of the law and how often do we jaywalk? How often do people make noise late into the night? How often do people take a chance and swim without a lifeguard?
In wartime as well, when one would think “life and death” means something, we have seen situations where some people would not wear gas masks, where some would not enter shelters and where some would stand on rooftops to watch missiles coming in.
WITH ALL this as known behavior, perhaps the expectations regarding adherence to guidelines should have considered that widespread compliance is but a fantasy.
Human behavior is consistent, so we do see this lack of compliance all over the free world. Masking is inconsistent, infection rates are high and nowhere, except in some exceptional circumstances where cultural factors are very different, do we see success. Expecting anything different was always an illusion. No matter how hard we would try, there would be “leakage” in keeping to the rules because people do not listen. And when each leaked drop is a potential weapon, a virus that can disable and kill, we have a problem.
With this in mind, we can only ask why the closure and lockdown policies did not take this into consideration. By creating a policy that is based on an expectation of full compliance, something that was never possible, failure was assured from the outset. Instead of recognizing this and protecting those who needed to be protected, the illusion and myth of compliance created an impossible world of breaking rules and breaking people’s lives.
We know from past research that compliance with quarantine breaks down after about 10 days. After that, people start to show signs of depression, signs of exhaustion and signs of resistance to being kept locked up. While our first lockdown might have stretched the limits of psychological resilience and had some positive value, further lockdowns could never (and did never) achieve the same results. We knew that noncompliant “leakage” would take place but did not prepare for it.
What followed was denial, distortion, rationalization and ignorance that seemed to defy logic, but which was actually quite predictable. When rules are enforced inconsistently and often unreliably, changing from day to day and sometimes hour to hour, and even from group to group, it is no surprise that a weary and cynical public would lose faith in the process. When inconsistency is met without any consequences, the process becomes arbitrary and irrational. And when arbitrary and psychologically irrational procedures are applied, the insanity of doing something over and over again that yields the same ineffective results is exposed.
But despite it all, the issue of public compliance is of great importance to any civil society. Compliance ultimately may determine survivability, so insight into it is of major significance and a subject area that directly impacts national security. This applies to both personal compliance, which involves getting individuals to believe and conform as well as to group compliance, which would rely on getting identifiable groups in the population to act appropriately.
BASIC BEHAVIORAL principles teach us that force and punishment work, but only temporarily. Take away punishment and behavior reverts to the way it was previously. An exit strategy that was based on an on again, off again hand placed on a jack in the box to keep it down was bound to fail once the hand is removed. The challenge going forward in a post-corona era will be to apply what we do know about compliance in a fair and effective way and use what we know from behavioral science to guide national strategy not if, but when the next crisis appears.
The writer is an adjunct professor of psychology at Long Island University in Brooklyn and a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs specializing in political psychology. He has conducted studies on lone wolf terrorism, the Jewish American community and the behavioral aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. He is currently studying the evolving nature of how people and communities behave as vaccination efforts begin.