Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham

The consequences of loyalty

When rules and consequences clash, we had better weigh up carefully what matters most

When a pandemic is wreaking havoc, and many hundreds of people are killed by a virus every day, it is important that the population as a whole takes sufficient precautions to slow down its exponential spread. Self-interest may not be sufficient to ensure the right behaviours are widely adopted. So, governments tend to impose rules that transcend people’s conventional decision-making approach in which they weigh up the costs and the benefits of a decision.

A worried father

In case you missed the story (though I understand it has received airtime well beyond the shores of the British Isles), a brief summary. A few days after the nationwide lockdown was instated, Mr Cummings’ wife reported feeling ill, and feared she might have COVID-19. Concerned they might not be able to look after their four-year-old son if he too would become ill, he drove his family 250 miles from their home in London to Durham, where his father and his sister live. This was clearly in breach of the government’s lockdown instructions. People with symptoms had to self-isolate at home, and were not expected to travel elsewhere.

Sign for Barnard Castle, with the text repeated in ever smaller type, as at an optician’s
Sign for Barnard Castle, with the text repeated in ever smaller type, as at an optician’s
A short trip to test one’s eyesight (image: Twitter)

The citizens are revolting

The fact that of one worried father had bent the rules would not remotely have made the headlines. This was not a random worried father, however, but a figure in a position of authority, and the news, on 22nd May, of Mr Cummings’ trip led to predictable indignation. Much of it came from the opposition, but there was plenty of outrage from within the government party too. Dozens of Tory MPs seem unwilling to “move on” from the row, with 44 of them (including several bona fide Brexiteers) calling for Mr Cummings to go. In a YouGov poll after Mr Cummings defended his actions at a press conference, 59% of respondents said he should resign or be sacked, and 71% believe he breached regulations. Several variations on the “One rule for them, another one for the rest of us” could be heard up and down the land.

Uncompromising loyalty

This makes the reaction from the prime minister, from Mr Cummings himself, and from the cabinet — ‘nobody did anything wrong’ — a little puzzling. Both the PM and his adviser have a reputation of being good communicators, at least with words. But communication is more than just rhetoric and slogans: what one does, or doesn’t do, also conveys a message. Here, the government seems to be spurning the scientific advice it is otherwise so keen to refer to, as this tweet from Stephen Reicher, a psychologist specializing in crowd psychology and one of the members of the Independent Scientific Pandemic Influenza on Behaviour (SPI-B) group suggests ( supported by several of his colleagues):

The word RULE in blue graffiti lettering on a wall
The word RULE in blue graffiti lettering on a wall
The rules of loyalty, writ large (photo: Steve Rotman/Flickr CC BY)

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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