Christmas tree with coronaviruses as baubles
Christmas tree with coronaviruses as baubles
(featured image: based on an original photo by Maciej326)

The Great Christmas trade-off

Do we need to choose between outcomes, or between values, this Christmas?

his is the time when, traditionally, ubiquitous is the most fitting term for Slade’s Noddy Holder’s voice, yelling “It’s Christmas!” on the radio, in the shops and on the streets. True, but it won’t be a Christmas like the ones we are used to, and not only because there is rather less of Mr Holder’s dulcet tones around.

Much of Europe is currently still under some form of lockdown, and with the festive season approaching, people are anxious. On the one hand, we crave the social contact with loved ones which, at best, has been patchy for the last nine months, while, on the other, attending a large family gathering will raise the chance that we contract COVID-19.

One the hand, on the other hand… if that isn’t economic language! And there is indeed a trade-off to be made between the joys of traditional Christmas and New Year celebrations on the one hand, and the risk of becoming infected.

To complicate matters a little, the trade-off does not just affect us personally. As we have snuck into economics land, let’s unashamedly call on another apt economic term: our behaviour may cause externalities — others who have no say in the choices we make will still be affected by them. We may not be in a vulnerable group and the likely consequences of contracting the disease may be limited, with the chance of requiring intensive care, let alone dying, very small for us. But we may still directly or indirectly infect other people who are much more at risk and who might clog up the healthcare system, and go on to infect others. This is the nature of a pandemic. All that is needed for a post-Christmas third wave is enough traditional Christmas celebrations with extended families.

Split, but not down the middle

How do people respond to this trade-off? In Belgium, researchers at Ghent University have been conducting a motivation barometer survey since the end of March, and its latest report has just been published. It presented the nearly 6,000 participants with four scenarios featuring increasing degrees of freedom: from the currently prevailing lockdown measures (a household can have just one visitor), with intermediate options to invite a further two or four visitors, all the way to Carte Blanche with no restrictions.

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About one third of the respondents would prefer for the current rules to be maintained, but two thirds find this too strict. 8% would prefer the full freedom option, with almost 90% finding this too lax. The researchers also gauged the participants’ willingness to adhere to each of the four scenarios, and found that for the three restrictive ones, a little over 60% of respondents would comply, with more than one third preferring either a stricter (where possible) or a more lenient scenario. More than one third of respondents would break the prevailing rules if these continued to apply, and 34% would enjoy the freedoms of the restriction-free scenario if that was allowed.

Another regular survey is being carried out at Antwerp University, and for its latest incarnation, 26,000 respondents were also asked to state their attitude towards the festive season under the current COVID-19 measures (i.e., with just one visitor per household). Here, 75% of participants said they would adhere to the restrictions for New Year’s Eve, and 68% for Christmas, though among the under-35s, more than 40% stated they would violate the measures.

In Britain, the government has already granted a relaxation of the COVID-19 measures during a window of five days around Christmas: up to three households can get together indoors, without social distancing. But here, public health officials pointed out a different kind of trade-off: greater freedom at Christmas would inevitably lead to more infections, and in order to stem these, tighter measures would need to be introduced in January.

The exchange rate for this trade-off was initially said to be two extra days’ lockdown for one extra day of freedom, but in a move not entirely uncharacteristic for the handling of the pandemic in the UK, that was later corrected: for every day of relaxation, five days of tighter restrictions would be needed. An opinion poll conducted prior to the government’s decision found that 54% of respondents would prefer to keep restrictions in place for Christmas if that avoided further restrictions in January, but that 33% would happily accept those measures if it meant a more normal Christmas — an interesting illustration of different time preferences.

So, while in both my native and my adoptive country, a majority of the people seems to be willing — albeit perhaps grudgingly — to have a restricted Christmas, as much as one third would rather have more normal celebrations, and take the consequences later. Why is Christmas such a big deal for so many?

The meaning of Christmas

A few weeks ago, economist Tim Harford wondered about this as well: why are we so obsessed with saving Christmas? All of the joyous things that we associate with the celebration — the family reunions, the gifts, the feasting, the decorations and so on — could really happen at any time of the year. But what makes it special is that everyone does so at the same time: everybody is collectively and simultaneously “having fun”, as Noddy Holder of Slade reminds us.

That collectiveness and simultaneity is what makes Christmas a highlight every year for many people. This means missing out is, understandably, a disappointment. Perhaps, as Tim Harford argues, we should reflect on what we truly value about Christmas, and make the trade-off accordingly, keeping a sense of proportion.

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Part of the ritual — hopefully they don’t contain a viral load (image: Caley Dimmock via Unsplash)

Yet, that may not be so easy as a rational economist suggests. In an article for the Behavioral Scientist, three psychologists, Daniel Klein, Juliana Schroeder and Nick Hobson, share insights from their research hinting at what makes people so possessive of celebrations like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, and so on. They found that these are seen as rituals reflecting profound group values. The stronger the symbolic significance of such a custom, the more important it is to do it in a specified way, and the more any attempts at altering it is experienced not just as interfering with collective and simultaneous expressions of joy, but as an affront to sacred values.

The motive for messing with these rituals is, of course, also a sacred value: saving lives. Having to choose between two sacred values is a tough call — the renowned psychologist Philip Tetlock coined the phrase “tragic trade-off” for it. Policy makers can’t win — whatever they choose, it will provoke outrage in some.

Factual evidence is ineffective to persuade people in matters that involve values. Highlighting the risk that more people will die as a result of eased restrictions over the holiday season, or the prospect of another lengthy lockdown in January will not convince those who see Christmas as a powerful symbol of their values.

There is no easy way to resolve such tragic trade-offs, yet this Christmas, it’s one we all face.

(A little bonus link to cheer you all up: an unusual remix of Slade’s classic, containing not a single occurrence of the word “Christmas”.)

Originally published at on November 27, 2020.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Written by

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

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