Pressure to adhere to social norms may explain risky COVID-19 decisions
Pressure to adhere to social norms may explain risky COVID-19 decisions

Pressure to adhere to social norms may explain risky COVID-19 decisions

The pandemic has entered a dark phase, and social norms are changing rapidly, something I have been thinking about a lot lately. Many people test at home, or not at all. Here in Vermont, where I live, you can pick up a type of PCR test that can be taken at home. However, government officials both here and elsewhere are no longer closely monitoring the results of these tests, which means that actually spreading coronavirus in the US population is still unclear (SN: 22/4/22).

For a few weeks, rumors of a hidden COVID-19 wave have been circulating both in the media and on my Twitter feed. Now cases and admissions are rising, as is the level of coronavirus in wastewater. This suggests that more cases and ultimately deaths may follow.

Even with increasing case volumes and one the vaccination rate has dropped with about 66 percent of the eligible population, the U.S. public has largely begun to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. People throw off their masks, eat out, attend concerts, travel to remote locations, hold large indoor weddings, and do all the social things that people tend to do when left to their own devices.

The 2,600 people Dinner at the White House Correspondent Association the end of last month is an example of this. Just like that Trevor Noah prophesiedMany of those present have since tested positive for COVID-19, including US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and journalists from NBC, ABC, Washington Post, Politico and other media. And those who almost certainly knew better – cue White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jha – however, appeared.

Countless peculiarities related to human behavior undoubtedly support these undoubtedly bad choices. The Decision Labs website has a list of biases and mental shortcuts people use to make decisions. The one that caught my eye are social norms. This particular peculiarity outlines what behaviors people find appropriate in a given situation.

I started thinking about social norms while writing a feature about how to get people in the usa to eat less meat when practice is so, yes, normal (SN: 5/11/22). Social norms, my research stated, vary with the group one hangs out with and one’s surroundings. “We is rapidly changing our perspective depending on the context of the situation we are in, ”writes marketing expert John Laurence on the Decision Lab page.

I could have found this idea of ​​rapid change suspicious if I had not recently experienced the phenomenon. My husband’s Disney file brother and his wife had been planning a family reunion at Disney World in Florida since the beginning of the pandemic. And I, who am only a variety who is not inclined to feel the magic, have long ago agreed to go on the condition that other people do all the planning. And then it was, after several COVID-related postponements, that my kids, my husband and I landed in Orlando on a windy hot April day.

Disney’s normal, I soon learned, did not look much like the normal in Vermont. This was evident immediately from people’s attire. All around me, parents and kids are dressed in coordinated clothing and matching Mickey Mouse ears. (Sorry to my kids – your mom missed the fashion memo.)

Social norms almost certainly arose to promote cohesion among our earliest ancestors, who needed solidarity to hunt large prey, share limited resources, and ward off predators and enemy tribes. In-group norms also give people a sense of belonging, which research suggests is crucial to our overall health. A meta-analysis of more than 3.4 million people followed for an average of seven years showed that the probability of dying during the study period increased by 26 percent for participants who reported feeling alone (SN: 29/3/20).

It is therefore not surprising that one of the strongest driving forces behind human behavior is to seek belonging. At Disney, this quest means blocking the reality that exists just outside the county. Wars, climate crises, political struggles and the like have no place within the magic walls. Nor are reminders of a global health crisis that, according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization, has so far killed nearly 15 million people worldwide.

Within the walls of Disney, crowds of mostly maskless tourists packed on iconic rides and at restaurants. As we were halfway through our trip, a judge in Florida ruled that masks could not be imposed on public transportation, but there was not a mask to be seen on buses transporting people to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. And everywhere people seemed to cough, sniff or brush their noses all the time.

As a science reporter covering COVID-19, I certainly knew I had to keep my mask on. And yet, my decision soon faltered. My kids pointed out that no one else was masking, not even my typically rule-following relatives. To put on my mask meant to admit that I did not revel in the flash and the flash and the magic and made all too clear to my beloved extended family that I did not actually belong. I kept my face covered in my pocket.

Human tendency to conform is not only bad. In an increasingly classic study from the 1980s, researchers investigated how to reduce water consumption in drought-prone California. Signs at the University of California, Santa Cruz, asking students to turn off the shower while soaping up, led to only 6 percent compliance. So researchers recruited male students to serve as norm-setting role models. These role models hung out in the shared shower until they heard another student come in and soap then up with the water off. When a role model soaped with the shower off, roughly half of the ignorant students also began to shut off their faucets at soaping time. Compliance jumped to 67 percent as two role models followed the sign.

But conformity can also distort how we make decisions. For example, in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was still new, researchers asked 23,000 people in Mexico to predict how a fictional woman named Mariana would decide whether or not to attend a birthday party. Most participants felt that Mariana should not participate. But when they read a sentence that suggested her friends would attend or that others approved of the party, their predictions predicted Mariana also wanted to go increased by 25 percent, researchers reported in PLOS ET.

My decision to follow the Disney standard ended predictably – with a positive COVID-19 test. After weeks of coughing and sleepless nights, however, my frustration is less directed at myself than at political leaders who so cheerfully ignore both epidemiology and research into human behavior and tell us that we must live as if it is 2019. That is it does not. Nor is it 2020 or 2021. It is the dark year known as 2022. And the rules of conduct that strengthen our social norms – such as role models who refrain from large, indoor, unmasked assemblies, and leaders who maintain mask mandates on public transportation to protect the most vulnerable – should reflect this liminal space.

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