As the COVID-19 pandemic lashes countries in a second (and in some cases, third) wave of infections, patience and solidarity are giving way to frustration and blame. Officials in the United States and Germany say the latest upsurge in infections in their countries is a consequence of a selfish minority that is ignoring basic social distancing rules, while Berlin’s tourism authority has launched a colorful campaign—complete with an old lady and an offensive finger—chastising visitors who refuse to wear masks.
But while casting aspersions on “rule breakers” might feel cathartic, it does not invite a genuine inquiry into the psychological roots of such behavior. Just who are these unmasked deviants, and what motivates them to ignore COVID-19 restrictions?
In early 2020, as the coronavirus was racing through Europe and North America, we helped gather more than 100 colleagues from around the world to measure how people were responding to the pandemic. With prosocial behaviors such as social distancing, frequent handwashing and mask-wearing the best tools against the virus, we wanted to understand why some people follow government rules and others don’t. Now, with 60,000 responses from more than 30 countries, preliminary results are in, and they paint a complex picture of individual and collective motivations for curbing the coronavirus.
For instance, we found that fear of financial loss caused by virus containment strategies—rather than health risks—was often a stronger motivator for abiding by or ignoring government rules. In one particular analysis, we found that not a single country ranked the likelihood of getting infected with COVID-19 as a higher risk than suffering economic consequences stemming from the coronavirus. On average, people around the world are more motivated by their wallets than their health. These findings suggest that a way to motivate more people to follow health guidelines is to appeal to their economic well-being.
We also found that political orientation predicted how people would act in the weeks and months that followed the initial outbreak. In the U.S., for instance, conservatives were far more likely to minimize the virus’ risks and avoid wearing face masks than were liberals, exemplified by the downplaying of COVID-19 by the Trump administration. Although this might not be surprising to observers of American politics, it does illustrate the importance people ascribe to their leadership’s views. In many countries experiencing second and third waves, there are people who simply ignore or actively protest against governmental restrictions on their movement. The politicization of COVID-19 suggests that people have other pressing concerns that motivate them to de-emphasize the pandemic..
Finally, our data shoot down the commonly held perception that young people are uniquely at fault for the virus’ spread. While many officials, particularly in Europe, have blamed the spike in new COVID-19 cases on young people gathering recklessly, this may be a minority. Our findings show that, on average, age is not a reliable indicator of rule flaunting. At the same time, however, younger people do report experiencing a greater impact on their lives and livelihoods than older people. Given this, governments might consider replacing COVID-19 policies that coarsely target entire age groups with strategies that target certain underlying motivations that are common among certain age groups.
What can we make of these early findings? A common thread could be what behavioral scientists call “psychological reactance,” more commonly known as reverse psychology. In 1966, the American psychologist Jack W. Brehm published a classic theory positing that people believe they have specific behavioral freedoms and when these freedoms are threatened or eliminated, they become motivated to reassert them. In other words, when somebody tells you to do something, you do the opposite.
So strong is this human tendency to resist curbs on personal freedoms that in the 1970s, researchers in Florida testing Brehm’s theory found that when a specific laundry detergent was taken off the shelves in one county because of high levels of phosphates, which are dangerous to human health, “people started to smuggle phosphate detergent from neighboring counties or purchased the product in vast quantities.” The same psychological forces that motivate someone to drive hundreds of miles for a banned soap may fit the current pandemic response.
Of course, to implement meaningful policies that change public behaviors, governments must command a high degree of public trust to dissuade the breaking of rules. Not surprisingly, we found that stronger trust in one’s government to fight COVID-19 was significantly associated with higher willingness to make personal sacrifices to protect vulnerable groups from the coronavirus and its economic consequences. We found the opposite to be true among people who felt aggrieved and disempowered in society.
In the current crisis, all it takes is a few people to flaunt the rules to put entire communities at risk of infection. The challenge for policy makers, then, is figuring out how to use behavioral insights to target the most relevant individual and collective motives that could bring the rising caseloads back under control. Our early research points a way forward.
To help mitigate financial strains, a key concern of publics around the world, policy makers can do more to support state-run welfare systems and encourage private solidarity. To depoliticize virus control, bipartisan leaders can communicate the long-term economic benefits of virus control. To reduce grievances, there can be public recognition of essential workers and less blame applied to entire groups. In other words, we recommend a focus on addressing human needs and motivations that could determine whether individuals are willing and able to participate in virus control.
To be sure, there are examples of successful and continual containment. In parts of Asia, swift government action and a high degree of public trust have helped keep the virus at bay. Similarly, across Africa, speedy government responses and strong public support have helped keep case numbers on the continent low by comparison. However, cultures differ, and certain regions have more experience with deadly epidemics that help to prioritize virus containment.
For many places in between, the coming months will be a battle between an invisible enemy and a public that is tired of fighting. Until effective vaccines and therapeutics become widely available, the best weapons the world has in the war with COVID-19 are behavioral. Identifying, explaining and addressing the motivations that make rule breakers tick is necessary to end the crisis for everyone.