After a short appearance on BBC Radio Five Live last week talking about ‘breaking lockdown’, I decided to take stock of the arguments and heartbreak I’d listened to. Are we just a nation of selfish gits deep down or is the real culprit the communication and our instinctive behaviours as humans?
Take a cup of Yorkshire’s finest, read my take on it and let me know your thoughts.
So with COVID-19 pandemic still sweeping the planet and the country still in a form of lockdown after two months, it isn’t too surprising that tensions are starting to mount. From domestic arguments and petty squabbles between your kids to those awkward silences and “I did the washing up yesterday!”; it’s all become more commonplace as families are stuck in close quarters for extended periods of time, while those who live alone struggle even more to cope with their enforced isolation.
However, of all the things that are causing controversy right now, perhaps the most prominent is the behaviour of those who appear to be constantly breaking lockdown rules.
The Breaking Lockdown Problem
A quick browse through your Facebook or Twitter feed over the past few weeks and you’ve undoubtedly come across a post that’s made you spit out your tea and choke “That’s not social distancing!” Usually accompanied by a few choice words if you’re like my husband.
Meanwhile, when it’s not daily briefing updates, daily news reports appear to be full of footage of groups of feckless friends playing five-a-side still in the park or family barbecues in the garden without a care in the world for the vulnerable around them. Even a glance out of your window may reveal instances of neighbours sitting in each other’s gardens or laughing away on doorsteps.
Of course, it’s only natural that those of us who are working hard to adhere to the rules of the lockdown have been feeling frustrated and even angry at the behaviour of these people. We naturally think that they are selfish, thoughtless and irresponsible.
But, is this really the case?
It’s clear that, despite the knee-jerk reactions of the media and endless tirades on social media platforms decrying the ignorant behaviour of those who appear to be blatantly flouting the rules, the fact remains that most people are keen to comply and are trying their very best to do so with what they know.
They understand the importance of doing their bit for society. They’re trying really hard to adhere to the government’s restrictions despite the fact that they are facing serious curtailments to their lives. Many of those who are being criticised for their behaviour may be facing circumstances that the rest of us are simply unaware of. Perhaps they’re caring for an elderly relative with cancer who only has weeks to live. Or maybe they’re suffering from mental health issues and need the comfort that such interactions bring to avoid a complete breakdown.
While those who are breaking lockdown to see other people may appear on the surface to be rogues and villains, how can we be sure that they aren’t just seeking out comfort and support – something that is just natural to us as humans and social animals?
The fact is that, hard though it is – even for me being aware of human behaviour – we should all try to reserve judgement and not judge others too harshly for their apparently irresponsible actions. Perhaps we should all try to look at things from a different angle rather than leaping to conclusions.
Is it really their selfish and thoughtless behaviour that lies at the heart of the breaking lockdown problem? Or could the true issue really be poorly timed, ill-judged communication and mixed messaging?
The Communication Problem
Recent findings from the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team this month have shown that men across all age groups, and those who are aged between 18 and 25 years, are failing to engage with the COVID-19 messaging. However, you can’t blankly assume it’s because they don’t care. It’s simply because they don’t typically interact with communications, especially long, wordy ones in the case of under 25s (you only have to watch your teen daughter on Tik Tok to know that), and health-related messages in general in the case of men. Behavioural insights in healthcare have been telling us both these things for years which is one of the many reasons I went into doing what I do for a living.
Should we judge these people so harshly then, when in fact their non-compliance is more to do with the style of the government’s communication than their own selfishness? You only have to look at the speed in which messaging has changed throughout the pandemic and the face-palming moments senior politicians, who clearly haven’t had proper media training, come across as robotic and cold in interviews. Awkward!
Mixed Messaging And Social Proof
In communications and marketing, social proof is a very real phenomenon, trying to encourage other people to buy into a concept. When it comes to breaking lockdown, the social proof is of the negative variety.
Seeing other people in your newsfeeds and on the news going out, visiting friends and having fun in the sun only serves to have the opposite effect to the one intended. It’s a bit like in primary care where GP practices have put posters up to say how many missed appointments they’ve had that month or where councils have left signs saying how many bags of rubbish they’ve picked up from the roadside.
If such big numbers of other people are doing it, what’s one more going to do? How’s it going to hurt if I just do it this once because of (insert reason here)?
While we’re all supposed to be appalled at the behaviour of these selfish individuals, in fact promoting their negative action only encourages that action in others. If other people are breaking lockdown and not only getting away with it but having a fantastic time, surely it’s not such a big deal is it?
This leads to the situation in which people know that breaking lockdown is dangerous, but over time, the risks become less concerning.
Tapping Into Human Nature’s Sensible Side
If negative social proof is the wrong approach, then what is the right one? You can’t control people’s decision-making, it has to be done freely.
Well firstly, the focus needs to be on the desired action and behaviours. The ‘thank you for all that you’re sacrificing,’ spiel we’ve heard every night on the daily briefings.
Secondly, it’s about the positive social proof. “The majority of people are doing the right thing.”
And thirdly, more importantly, I think it seems that levelling with the public is the best way to tap into human nature’s sensible side. But that has to be delivered by the right people, in the right format and tailored to each group for maximum effect.
While public health experts like Professor Chris Witty are united in their belief that giving the public the information they need, no matter how scary it may be, politicians often fail to follow this simple rule.
Instead, they deliver messages that are overly calming, calibrate public statements and gin up fears. So, it’s no wonder that the public are sceptical of anything they have to say.
I’m still a firm believer that the public can handle the truth. Armed with the solid scientific facts and information, they are better placed to cope with the reality of the situation. Knowing the details about who is most at risk, how the virus spreads, how many people in different communities are asymptomatic but have tested positive, and what social distancing really means gives people everything they need to manage the challenging circumstances more safely and calmly.
A lack of government transparency only causes doubt, and doubt leads to flouting of the rules.
When people are given the right information in a format that is clear, simple and tailored to them, they are capable of making reasonable assessments and informed personal choices. We’ve already seen the evidence of this elsewhere in the world in places such as New Zealand and Germany.
Essentially, with timely and accurate information, the public can be trusted to make the right decisions and to do the right thing. Spotlighting examples of those who are putting the public at risk by breaking the guidelines on social distancing has its place, but it shouldn’t be allowed to distract from the things that matter – the frontline keyworkers who are risking their lives for everyone, and how we can show them gratitude and thanks by staying at home as much as we can and saving lives.
If you’re interested in behavioural science and how it’s being used in the fight against COVID-19, be sure to check out these interesting takes on the challenge: