What does psychology have to say about a coronavirus exit strategy?

While many things are not predictable in this pandemic, human behavior remains amazingly and predictably consistent.

A Tel Aviv pub re-opens after nearly two months of being closed during the Coronavirus outbreak  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
A Tel Aviv pub re-opens after nearly two months of being closed during the Coronavirus outbreak
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
As societies continue to cope with the challenges of the pandemic, one thing is clear: Developing an exit strategy to relax restrictions and reopen the economy will be a challenge. Finding the balance between the risk to public health and the consequences of continued lockdown is turning out to be a less than scientific endeavor, with arguments on both sides heated and contentious.
The bottom line for all, however, seems to be “When will it end?” And while the “hard” sciences are still in the dark and have no really definitive answers, the supposed “inexact” science of psychology is one discipline that, perhaps surprisingly to some, has some straightforward guidance to provide. For while many things are not predictable in this pandemic, human behavior remains amazingly and predictably consistent.
Unlike a discrete crisis event like a war or natural disaster, there is no overt, observable indicator of when the “end” will be for the coronavirus pandemic. What will determine the timing and the pace of the return to complete normalcy is a function of societal tolerance for the original concern of what the pandemic may cause, namely an increase in infections and the fear that a surge of serious cases will overwhelm the healthcare system.
However, as authorities become more confident that health systems can cope with the number of severe cases needing more intensive care, the pressure to relax restrictions and reopen society will increase, as will the justification to do so.
Relaxing restrictions and “allowing” certain activities does not necessarily mean that engaging in those activities, particularly for those considered at risk, is recommended, safe or at all wise. Without saying so specifically, while society as a whole will need to reopen, each individual member of society will have to decide if they wish to be a guinea pig in what is still an experiment in public health and safety.
Continued restrictions involving social distancing are having the desired effect on managing the medical consequences of the problem, but they also have serious economic, social and even familial consequences. This creates psychological dissonance between a desire to keep those at risk safe and healthy, with a desire to keep those with minimal risk functional.
Until an effective vaccine or adequate treatments are available, the fundamental question for any society remains how much mortality and morbidity it is willing to tolerate.
As an exit strategy is considered, a number of predictable psychological factors come into play.
First, there will be an inevitable increase in noncompliance with guidelines.
As times goes by, “leakage” in compliance will likely increase. This is especially true for low-risk individuals who understand that serious illness and death from coronavirus is largely a function of older age and pre-existing conditions. People will take more chances, expand the boundaries of their personal space and, absent personal consequences for noncompliance, test the system.
Families will experience all kinds of increasing pressures and authorities will be unable to realistically maintain total control. We are likely to then see more and more public examples of individual failure to abide by recommended guidelines. The more this takes place, the more models there are for people to emulate and follow, and the breakdown in adherence will increase.
This creates a greater burden on authorities who will have to pace the lifting of restrictions to take into consideration the increase in noncompliance that could potentially lead to an increase in viral spread.
Next, the greater the success of social distancing measures, the greater the likelihood of failure to maintain these measures.
IRONICALLY, THE more that social distancing is successful, the more that the results of that success are less likely to be seen as linked to the measures themselves. Behaviors require consequences that are closely linked in time.
When the positive consequence of a restriction is separated by days and sometimes by weeks from the behavior that brought it about, the strength of the association weakens. So, while social distancing works, the extended delay in seeing the desired effects leave people less likely to see that relationship and less likely to continue it.
Clearly, certain sectors of the population will continue to be at risk. As lower-risk individuals, such as younger people and those without pre-existing medical conditions, resume their place in society, older people or those who have background conditions may continue to require greater restrictions and less personal freedom.
While many will, out of self-interest, continue to comply, two results are likely.
First, the continued loss of personal freedom will lead to greater risk for psychological consequences in this population. Lack of access to social, family, recreational and cultural contacts, as well as restricted daily interaction with society at large will create needs that will challenge adjustment.
Second, notwithstanding risk, there will be at-risk individuals who will not continue to properly socially distance. This will raise the possibility of infection and subsequent illness, and all that comes with it.
As society reopens, the needs of those who continue to live with significant restrictions will need to be considered. Without taking the needs of the at-risk population into consideration, any re-entry strategy will be incomplete. Since the restrictions for this group may continue for an extended period, the predictable psychological consequences will need to be addressed with adequate measures to reduce and compensate for the social and personal loss of independence.
Society needs to prepare to cope with the possibility that even while exiting and lifting restrictions, portions of society will need to continue living with them.
The dilemma is clear. Failure to reopen society will have significant consequences.
The coronavirus pandemic presents society with a classical approach-avoidance conflict. One the one hand is the desire to open the economy and resume a normal life while. On the other hand is the desire to avoid any negative consequences of doing just that.
The nature of the conflict highlights the price that will be paid if it is not effectively resolved. Resolution of such conflicts take place when the balance between reward-punishment becomes more pronounced. If the ability to treat infected individuals will not tax society’s resources, the conflict will be resolved in the direction of greater “approach” to openness. However, if the rewards of an open society will not be great enough to mitigate the costs of the actual loss of life that will result, the effort will not succeed.
There will be, however, an inevitable if measured return to normal and a need for optimism. In the midst of a crisis, it is difficult to see beyond it, but the fact that human behavior is consistent and predictable gives reason for hope.
Societies have experienced plagues, wars, natural disasters and upheavals throughout history. During each event, it was common to hear expressions such as “things will never be the same,” but ultimately things were the same, because human behavior stays the same. After any crisis, there are varying periods of recovery and adjustment, but society as a whole always returns to more or less “normal” functioning.
There will eventually be a vaccine and there will be effective treatments, and while individuals may experience personal difficulty post crisis and require support, society as a whole will in all likelihood adjust and recover.
After all, psychology tells us that much.
The writer is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs, and an adjunct professor of psychology at Long Island University.