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Qua(run)tine Behaviour: why we break the rules

As the days of lockdown increase, so does our impatience. The pandemic looms around us and we find ourselves unable to follow guidelines, despite being aware of the dire consequences of roaming the streets. So why do infection rates continue to increase? How does our brain process being under quarantine and what can we do about it?

This behaviour is contingent on how we assess risk, not logically but as a feeling. Our reactions to events around us are not solely guided by cognitive evaluations, they are supplemented with feelings that dictate how we decide.

Here are six reasons why we can’t seem to stay indoors, even though we might feel like we are.

We can’t do the math

When your neighbour describes the symptoms of their child experiencing the virus, it is far more likely to have an impact than hearing a news channel announce that the probability of contracting the coronavirus is 42%.

The problem is twofold, one is our inability to imagine consequences of events purely based on numbers, the other is the way we perceive the given probabilities. Feelings about risk are largely insensitive to probabilities, it is difficult for us to make decisions based on statistics. Instead, the clarity with which we can imagine the consequences of our actions affect our risk perception.

 We imagine the possible, not the probable

When the percentage of coronavirus cases rose from 2% to 3%, the change was far more salient than when it increases from 42% to 43%. We are not sensitive to day by day increases of mid-range probabilities since they do not grant certainty.

Our ability to perceive differences between extreme probabilities is far greater than our ability to notice differences between intermediate ones. As a result, we tend to overreact to small changes in extreme probabilities and underreact to changes in intermediate probabilities.

We’re (never) the chosen ones

We believe the likelihood of us getting the disease is not as high as it is for the rest of the population. We are privately optimistic about the future.

According to estimates, 80% of the population hold unrealistic, optimistic beliefs about their own future. However, when asked about the overall state of affairs most people will say that it looks bleak and the situation is not under control.

We’re trained to believe otherwise

When we step out and occasionally break quarantine rules, the respite from the confines of our house and interaction with people creates a rush of relief and excitement. We are likely to increase visits to the local store or park, as the reward of relief persists and there are no visible, immediate consequences of our actions.

We’re constantly learning, every action contributes to the next and we make decisions based on the emotions left by previous actions. Feedback enhances an individual’s awareness of choice consequences in complex settings and rewards reinforce our behaviour. Additionally, given that the nature of the disease is to incubate in our body about two weeks before showing symptoms, and people can become asymptomatic carriers, it is harder to gauge cause and effect. These factors culminate into small loops we create for ourselves where there is dissonance between external messaging regarding the consequences of stepping out, and what we are actually experiencing.

We game the disease

We use tricks such as elbows to press elevator buttons, or constant sanitization, to believe that we are indeed safe and following protocol.

Gaming the disease provides a sense of control, a feeling of being able to decide outcomes in the face of uncertainty. For example, the illusion of safety created with “just stepping out for a jog” or “just buying groceries” is high, we have successfully reassured ourselves that the external stressor is not valid. We rationalize as a defence mechanism, this permits us to deal with emotional conflicts by devising reassuring but incorrect explanations. It helps reduce the dissonance we feel between what we should be doing and what we really are.

We’ve lost a lot

Being stuck at home represents a loss on several fronts. For most, we miss interacting with our loved ones, the smell of office coffee, others face the threat of unemployment and pay cuts. We begin to make decisions the way we usually do when we incur losses – we become risk seeking.

Similar to our behaviour during investment decisions, with an increase in time, the quantum of losses we face increase and the valence of our emotions reverse. Our frame of mind switches to one of losses and we take less than optimal decisions, akin to exiting an investment when it’s at its lowest.

“You’ve spent so long being safe, why stop now?”

Increase the Sunk Cost associated with breaking quarantine. The sunk cost fallacy is the general tendency for people to continue an endeavour if they’ve invested time or some resource in it. Reminding people of how much time they have invested in keeping the disease at bay with no negative consequences, would help sustain the behaviour.

“It was hard for me breathe, I lost sense of smell”

Increase the vividness of the consequences of misbehaviour even as quarantine eases up, heightening anticipatory emotions by asking people to describe symptoms or listen to narration by an infected patient would help them better evaluate the risks of engaging in unsafe behaviour.

“What should I do to play my part in achieving this?”

The nature of our strategic interaction with coronavirus is one where it attacks us, and we interact with one another. The players are the virus and the community, each with their own payoffs. Our payoffs are a combination of health and economic effects, and decisions need to be coordinated to be effective. Therefore, it would help to employ team reasoning to alter the unit of agency from the individual to the group of players. By allowing each player to ask “What do we want?” we increase social interdependence, creating an awareness of collective agency and beliefs in the power to produce effects through collective actions.

“I can finally focus on my home and myself”

A person’s point-of-view depends on the frame it is viewed in. When the frame is shifted, the meaning changes and behaviour often changes along with it. Changing the goal associated with quarantine at an individual level from “I am stuck inside” to “I can finally focus on my home and myself” and at a society level to “making cities breathe better” or being a contributor to society, provides a sense of control and agency. It changes our goal and allows us to believe we are proactive problem solvers.

As we go forward with the virus’ exponential capacity for growth, even slightly easing quarantine guidelines allows the infection rate to bounce back dramatically. We remind ourselves of risk, and the rules of this game until we have a widely available vaccine. Because this is not a game we can afford to lose.

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