Why people can’t seem to stay indoors and what we can do about it: a behavioural look at COVID-19

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In our last article, we looked at the potential reasons for people’s impulse shopping and the spike in fear. Now lets delve into what looks like the opposite phenomenon: why people don’t seem able to follow the request to stay at home!

We know physical distancing can make a huge difference, so why don’t people do it?

The below, though not an exhaustive list, may give some insight.

Reason 1: It seems too far into the future

The great Daniel Kahneman in his book thinking fast and slow spoke in one of the last chapters about how there are effectively two versions of himself. There’s the one living in the immediate and the one that will exist in the future. He makes this very clear distinction because it is one of those areas where the rational mind seems to fall face first in the mud.

Unfortunately for us, time is a very abstract and relative thing. If something is too far in the future, we can’t quite quantify or comprehend it and this affects our ability to take note of probabilities and to make better decisions for our future selves.

A really simple example (though one that is admittedly now under investigation for other contributory explanations) is the child who is offered one piece of chocolate now or two pieces in 10 minutes time if they’re able to resist temptation and wait. If we applied logic, of course we’d wait the 10 minutes, but more often than not, we can’t quantify the future gain the same way because emotion rather than thought influences our decisions. For this reason, we struggle to see the collective benefit of staying home and being able to roam freely in a few weeks when we rather go play in the park now because the sun is shining.

Reason 2: we do good, so we want to do bad!

Have you ever been forced to do something that you didn’t want to (do me a favour and try and think of a time before we were all told to stay at home)?  Whether it was forcing yourself to go to the gym or sitting down to sort out your bills before tax time, it can be really hard to keep yourself motivated! The challenge here is that when we’re told to do something we don’t want to, even if it’s for our own benefit, we then seek reward or compensation. This is called a behavioural spillover.

“I did something good, so now I want to do something that makes me feel good to reward myself for my prior good behaviour”

In this situation, it could be something as simple as I didn’t leave the house yesterday, so it’s perfectly reasonable that I should be able to go for two walks today (even though I’ve been told we’re only allowed one a day). Another example could be that because you’re stuck inside, the effort and energy it took not to yell at your partner/just eat chocolate for breakfast/actually sit down and do some work means that your ability to remain disciplined so that you don’t go venturing outside or doing all the things you’re being told you’re not allowed to do (even though you may desperately want to) becomes a whole lot harder!

Similarly, if you think you’re doing one thing to protect yourself (or others), you may be more inclined to put less effort into other precautionary measures. For example, if you think that using hand sanitiser or a mask means you won’t get/give anything, you’re probably less cautious or concerned about going out in public than you would be if you didn’t think you were protected by any of these measures.


Reason 3: sunk cost fallacy is a struggle to deal with

This one is probably becoming less of an issue now that there are mandatory requirements being implemented by governments but where we’ve invested in an outcome, whether it’s plans for a social catchup or an outing you’ve already spent money on, it can be incredibly difficult to give up on the idea. Even if your event (ie Glastonbury or Falls or even something as big as Spring Break) has been cancelled, the fact that you’ve made the conscious (and potentially financial) investment means that the loss is a far more dominant feature in your mind than the concerns about social distancing ever will be.


So how do we encourage people to change their behaviour and follow the social distancing recommendations?

From a behavioural science standpoint, there are two things that are always of greatest importance:

  1. Context
  2. Environmental changes (ie nudges)

As bad as it sounds, behavioural science suggests that relying on people to do the right thing is an almost foolish strategy. Not because we don’t want to do the right thing, it’s just that there are so many factors working against us that it becomes incredibly difficult. For this reason, it’s often more effective to change the environment or the factors surrounding the decision to go out or stay in. But to then work out how best to do this, it’s also crucial that we take into account the situation itself. Because as a professor at LSE (repetitively) said Context matters!

Option 1: Punishment

Firstly, let’s address the most obvious example of a deterrent: fines. Adopting the ‘stick’ approach in the ‘carrot or stick approach’ are the fines that governments are threatening for those who gather in large groups, don’t adhere to social distancing. These can work really well but have limitations. Firstly, you need to enforce the punishment. If it’s just an empty threat, the effect is going to be really minimal because the risk and probability is very low. Secondly, sticks only work for so long. After a while, you get used to the threat or punishment (the problem of salience dwindling) and start to recalculate how bad it would be and whether breaking the rules are more beneficial to you (this is the moral licencing spillover problem noted above).

Option 2: Deterrence

Admittedly, this is sort of a punishment too, but with a twist. To keep things salient, one group of marketing whizzes came up with a campaign that acted as a wonderful deterrent. They posted up giant posters filled with spoilers for TV shows on Netflix. The brilliance of this strategy was that it changed the environment such that it truly appealed to people’s desire to stay away. Because after all, when you’ve invested hours on end into a TV show, having the ending spoiled is enough to make you want to hurt someone (just think about how people reacted to Game of Thrones spoilers!). While this approach does wonders for modifying the environment, the challenge here is that it has a very short lifespan unless you keep changing the poster content to be new shows that are gaining traction constantly. But even then, as soon as someone has walked a route once, on seeing the poster, it instantly loses effect.

Option 3: Social norms

Partly a deterrent and partly a social norm, the mandate to stop gatherings of two or more people is another way to encourage people to stay home. Firstly, there’s the fear of punishment discussed above. Secondly, the environment becomes less enticing if your friends aren’t out (yes I’m talking about FOMO). Thirdly (this is the social norm part) – if your friends are staying home and hanging out over Zoom or HouseParty, then you want to be seen to be just like them and so become more inclined to stay home as well! The challenge here is that if your friends are rebels, chances are even if 95% of people are staying home, you’ll see them as different from you and opt to do what your friends are even if it’s the opposite of what’s being asked of you.


There are many other approaches too but these were the first to come to mind. That said, if you have other ideas, please feel free to share them in the comments section!


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