Man wearing a facemask
(credit: Jernej Furman CC BY)

Why do(n’t) we heed COVID-19 measures?

As COVID-19 infections are on the rise again, it seems not everyone is prepared to continue adhering to safe behaviours like physical distancing and wearing a facemask. What motivates (non-)compliant behaviour?

There has been some good news regarding possible COVID-19 vaccines lately. But it takes time to prove a vaccine’s efficacy and safety, and for the time being we must rely on non-pharmaceutical interventions like covering our nose and mouth, keeping at a safe distance from others, and limiting the number of contacts, to prevent the spread of the disease in the community. As the number of cases is on the increase again in many countries where COVID-19 appeared to be under control, the finger of blame points at people who are disregarding the rules.

(Limited) power to reasoning

One way to make a trade-off is to weigh up the costs and benefits of the available options based on the facts we know: what do we need to sacrifice, and what do we get in return in each case? Let’s see if we can explain compliant behaviour like wearing a facemask, or practising physical distancing with this trade-off.

Monkey wearing a facemask, with caption “this is what our ears will look like in one month’s time
Monkey wearing a facemask, with caption “this is what our ears will look like in one month’s time
If the cost is getting ears like this, I am not so sure (image: Linda De Volder CC BY)

Led by beliefs

An evaluation of costs and benefits takes into account the evidence and our preferences to come to a conclusion as to what to do. But sometimes our preferences are so strong they dominate the decision-making, even if there is evidence that might challenge them. It is as if one side of the scales carries so much weight that no imaginable counterweight could make it tip the other way. We just know what is the right thing, no need to reason about it. Might compliant behaviour be explained by this trade-off?

Two people wearing hoodies and facemasks
Two people wearing hoodies and facemasks
We believe in masks (image: Geoff Livingston CC BY)

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