On Sunday, President Donald Trump extended social distancing guidelines through the end of April, and Gov. Tom Wolf followed suit Monday, continuing a stay-at-home order in 33 counties until at least April 30. The practice saves lives and keeps hospitals from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.
But in Philadelphia and neighboring counties, as recently as last week residents were still hosting and attending gatherings reminiscent of Eagles tailgates and college parties, resulting in angry 311 calls and photos on social media shaming participants for their actions.
While criticizing people on social media may be tempting, experts say that people interested in changing the behavior of their neighbors, friends, and family members who aren’t staying home and maintaining a six-foot distance from others should pursue a different avenue: empathy.
Why people are resistant to social distancing
Before initiating a conversation about social distancing, it’s important to understand the psychology behind why some people refuse to participate, said Syon Bhanot, a behavioral economist and assistant professor at Swarthmore College. In general, he said, people are not as responsive to threats they cannot see, like a virus, and some may think the situation is not serious because they’re not “seeing people falling down on a street from being sick.”
“They’re seeing people walking their dogs, the nice weather, and thinking, ‘What’s the big deal?’” Bhanot said. “There’s also the phenomenon of when you feel that your freedom is being threatened, you push back against it. It’s more visible in the United States, where we teach people to have pride in their freedom, and that’s a really challenging thing to have in a scenario like this.”
Bhanot also noted that young people may feel a false sense of security because they are considered low-risk for severe complications from the virus, and therefore be unwilling to take on the burden of social distancing and isolation.
“As a young person in particular, you might think that you’re not going to die from this,” he said. “So in the interim, you get a little sick, but also you can have a great time, meet your friends, do whatever. The damage of that is that you’re bringing the disease home to your family, and somebody down the road might die."
For some, ignoring social distancing guidelines may be a coping mechanism to deal with their heightened anxiety about the pandemic, said Jeff Wolper, founder and director of the Wolper Institute for Group Learning in New York City. He noted a common psychological reaction to anxiety: fight or flight.
“In this case, flight can look like ignoring the situation, being in denial about its seriousness or joking about it,” Wolper said. “Well-meaning people who are approaching those defying social distancing are creating a paradox, because they’re raising the anxiety of those refusing to comply, causing them to dig their feet in further.”
A gentle approach
Engaging someone in a conversation about why their behavior might be hurtful to others is not easy, but is necessary, Bhanot said. But instead of approaching someone in a critical, emotional way, conveying empathy will likely get better results.
“Maybe your neighbors have a job and they’re working from home, and because they have to get their work done, they tell their kids to go play outside,” he said. “You could tell them that you understand why they have to do this, but that your community is worried, and keeping their kids inside could be better for the neighborhood. And you could also help them come up with some ideas for the problem, instead of saying, ‘How dare you!’”
Wolper said he tries to take a gentle approach that lessens someone’s anxiety level. For example, he models the desired behavior, like running onto a lawn during his jogs when he encounters someone who’s not adhering to social distancing.
“That raises their awareness,” Wolper said. “And I’m not telling them what to do, I’m simply disclosing what I care about, which doesn’t exacerbate their anxiety and allows them to think more responsibly and altruistically.”
Refrain from shaming
Consider that posting pictures of people flouting social distancing recommendations on social media can send the wrong message, Bhanot said.
“Maybe someone who is struggling with being cooped up in the house sees your post,” he said. “And they think, ‘Oh! It can’t be that bad. Maybe I should leave and walk around.’ In the meantime, you’re not actually breaking up the gathering you’re witnessing.”
Wolper said that finding ways to bring down people’s anxiety level before giving advice about social distancing is key. Because of the uncertainty of the pandemic, “coping strategies are peaked,” he said, and it’s important to prioritize the person you’re talking with.
“After you understand the person you’re engaging with ... help them design a new temporary normal that includes things that reduce anxiety that are safe, along with behaviors that honor the scientific recommendations we’re getting," he said.
Bhanot said most people are not ignoring social distancing recommendations because they want to hurt others, but are acting in their own best interest under the circumstances without considering the consequences.
“It’s possible to find a compromise,” he said. “I don’t think that these people hate their towns or their communities. They’re just not really thinking through the damage that their actions might be causing.”