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For today’s delicious slice of brainery, I enlisted the help of one of the brainiest brains I know, Dr. Clare Cooper. Clare is a lecturer in Health Psychology at a leading university in the UK so I asked her opinion on some of the interesting behavioural things we are observing during this global health crisis. I posed her some questions based on partially formed thoughts I’d had and she fought valiantly in the face of adversity to provide some sense and scientific credibility. Read on…

Q: All across the world we are seeing governments and administrations doing the very best they can to get people to practice safe and healthy behaviours (such as physical distancing and increased hygiene). They’ve made a really clear case for why it’s important – what do you think are some of the reasons that so many people are refusing to comply?

A: (laughing)Do you want an answer more scientific than “some people are just ******!”

Well first of all, one thing we know [in health psychology] for absolute certain is that providing information to increase knowledge will not change health behaviours on its own. It’s a prerequisite to behaviour change: the knowledge has to be there, but there are multiple other factors that have to come into play in order to actually change a behaviour.

The success of any intervention to change behaviour will be heavily influenced, for example, by the attitude of the target person (or population) which in turn is influenced by those around us and our social norms. What are our friends and family doing? What do they think about the situation and what’s being asked of us?

Another big factor in play is the idea of perceived susceptibility and perceived seriousness. In other words, how likely am I to actually get covid-19 and how serious would it be if I did? Well the message we are hearing regularly is that for the majority of the population, the symptoms could be quite mild if you are outside of the defined risk group. Our perception or belief of susceptibility and seriousness will certainly shape our willingness to change our normal way of life.

Q: So, to take it another step further from mere non-compliance, what about some of the reports we’ve seen of people deliberately coughing on others and licking or spitting on grocery produce and ATMs? What on earth is that all about?

A: I refer you back to my first answer for the last question! In all seriousness though, this is not necessarily something unique that has sprung up because of the Corona Virus. It’s unlikely that these individuals were, up to that point, upstanding members of the community in every way. It’s more likely that now they just have a convenient new vehicle to display threatening behaviours.

Q: Yuck. Anyway, something else we’ve noticed is that measures and restrictions seem to be drip-fed in from governments rather than opting straight away for large scale lock downs or quarantines. Is there a benefit or indeed a downside to things this way in your opinion?

A: Yes. There is sense in this method. First of all, if we had started with full lock down from day one, I’m sure you can imagine, it’s just human nature that people would be more likely to ‘rebel’ in a way and not be compliant. Coherence of information can be really key to getting people to change their behaviours and by this we mean that the information they receive has to stack up, or make sense. When people see things moving along and measures increasing in line with that, it all fits together for them.

In this vein, there is also a concept called timed intervention. All this means, is that if we can catch people at the optimum time with information or interventions they are more likely to do, in the first place, what they should and then hopefully sustain it.

Q: Something that’s been troubling me a bit about all this; why is the benefit of not catching a deadly virus and not passing on to your loved ones not a big enough incentive for people to change their behaviours and yet a $60 fine or some jail time is? Why is the carrot not as good as the stick?

A: Most likely it’s a simple cost/benefit calculation that people either consciously or subconsciously do. As we were talking about earlier, it could be that many people have a perception that their susceptibility to the virus or the seriousness of the illness is so low that the potential ‘cost’ of becoming infected is by far outweighed by the benefit of doing what they want to do and going about their normal lives. However, when you introduce a fine or indeed the possibility of being labeled a criminal, the cost of that is suddenly a much bigger consideration.

Q: I promise this is definitely the last question (I have literally said this twice already, but it’s such an interesting subject I keep coming up with new things). The idea of the stick and carrot approach being applied here is very much one of reinforcement and punishment, the basic principles of operant conditioning. We like to think that as adult humans we are a bit more sophisticated than lab rats and this stuff doesn’t work on us. It totally does, but what happens when remove the reinforcement or threat of punishment? Wont we all just go back to our unhealthy and unsafe way of life?

A: Ha! I couldn’t possibly comment on your level of sophistication compared to a lab rat! Regarding the other stuff, well the answer is; that depends. It will depend mostly on whether the new behaviours, for example hand washing and increased hygiene, have formed as a habit. In that case it’s much more likely to continue after the relaxing of measures.

It really will be interesting to see and there is so much evidence still to come on what will happen as we start to emerge from the other side of this. I think, at the moment, the whole world is looking towards China to see what happens there as they start to go back to work and return to some form of normality.

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