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Behavioral Lessons From COVID-19

What the pandemic teaches us about how to solve social challenges.

Key points

  • The COVID-19 pandemic teaches us what works and what does not when it comes to changing human behavior.
  • Threats of punishment and extrinsic motivations have not been key to changing pandemic behavior. What has mattered more are context and ability.
  • The pandemic's behavioral lessons must be applied to other major societal challenges such as climate change and crime.

In the spring of 2020, something remarkable happened. Across the globe, people stopped going to work, to restaurants, or even to see friends and family. The packed squares of Venice and Mecca became completely barren. The price of crude oil dipped below zero. The world became unrecognizable because people complied with their governments’ new COVID-19 rules.

It is easy to miss the remarkable fact that most people followed the initial social distancing and stay-at-home mitigation measures. Doing so was by no means easy. For many, it meant a direct loss of income. For all, it meant giving up basic human social activities. We cut direct social ties and the social proximity that makes us feel connected. Children received less and inferior education. And the elderly became isolated in nursing homes, unable to receive visits from loved ones. The psychological costs of social distancing and stay-at-home orders were tremendous.

Ahmed Elq/Wikimedia Commons
Mecca during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Source: Ahmed Elq/Wikimedia Commons

The public’s behavior during the first wave of the pandemic shows that our governments can achieve widescale behavioral change—even when it comes at an immense personal cost. But if our governments achieved such widescale behavioral change here, why can’t they protect us from other forms of misconduct or crimes that keep plaguing us? Why do we keep hearing about new cases of sexual abuse or #MeToo cases? Why does the Earth keep getting warmer despite polluting corporations repeatedly getting record-breaking fines? Why do people of color keep dying at the hands of police?

We must look beyond punishment

Our success in achieving compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures during the first wave can teach us how to handle the many other behavioral challenges we face. Over the last year, together with a team of social scientists from four universities, we have studied what made thousands of people across continents comply with social distancing and stay-at-home rules during the pandemic.

Whenever we think about stopping any form of crime or misbehavior, we tend to automatically think of punishments, law enforcement, and deterrence. Yet law enforcement and the threat of punishment had virtually no impact on COVID-19 compliance behavior during the first wave. This means that behavioral change is not just a matter of finding the right punishment and scaring people into compliance. Our findings here were not as surprising as they may seem. Decades of empirical studies have also found that there is no significant and consistent relation between tougher punishments and crime prevention. This means that to change behavior, we must look beyond our intuitions about punishment—beyond the stick.

We found that compliance with COVID-19 mitigation measures really depended on two things: context and ability. People who were able to work from home or avoid being in larger groups of people were more likely to follow the rules. This teaches us a fundamental lesson; to change behavior, we must address the situation or the context. The harder we make engaging in the misbehavior, the less likely motivated people are to try it and less likely that unmotivated people might slip into it. Yet we can also improve behavior not just by making misbehavior practically difficult, but also by enabling people to do the right thing. We can reduce violence and harassment by treating deficiencies in self-control. And when we ensure people get equal access to good education, we can reduce crime.

Compliance has become political

From our COVID-19 compliance studies, we learned important lessons about how to change behavior. So why don’t we use these insights to curb street crime or enhance corporate compliance? Why aren't we using these insights in the current Delta variant wave? The answer is that we are falling into the same trap as we do for so many of the biggest challenges that our society faces: Compliance has become political.

Within the coronavirus context, politicians actively polarize the mitigation measures and undermine public support for the policies. Wearing a mask incorrectly, if at all, became a political statement. And over time, more people started to violate the rules, and this normalized rule violation for all across the political spectrum. Not only did we erode the power of context and ability, but we effectively undermined social norms—the three most powerful factors for enhancing compliance.

The coronavirus taught us a lot about pain, anguish, and resilience. Yet its biggest behavioral lesson is that we must follow facts and not intuition. There is clear data now about what worked (and what did not) to keep people safe from harm. We have similar data about many of the major threats our society faces, yet all too often our politics just ignore the science and promote what feels good, rather than what we know is effective. This brought us the senseless war on drugs and ineffective mass incarceration. Now that we are facing the Delta variant of the virus, we must demand an evidence-based approach to make government policy become just as effective for the many ills that plague society, just as it did for COVID-19 compliance the first time around.