‘The lockdown will never be for me’: investigating cognitive and emotional behaviours around social distancing

Despite stricter policing methods, warnings, fines and in some cases arrests, there is a systematic rejection of the lockdown among some people. How can we explain this phenomenon? Bertrand Venard investigates

Faced with the enormity of the covid-19 pandemic, many governments have decided to impose lockdowns to limit the movement of people and slow the spread of the deadly virus. However, law enforcement officials have made hundreds of thousands of arrests around the world of those flaunting the rules.

For decades, scholars have been studying individual behaviours in the field of health, taking into account cognitive and emotional factors. This research has helped to explain self-protection behaviours such as attitudes towards a serious illness, unsafe sexual practices or vaccine refusal. We can use this research to explain the refusal to self-isolate around the world and outline several key reasons.

Belief in personal immunity

The refusal to self-isolate could be based on a belief of personal immunity. The person (wrongly) thinks that his/her personal risk of contamination is particularly low. The rebel may say things like: “I have a secret how not to catch COVID-19. I take a vitamin C tablet every day and I’m never sick”, even without any scientifically proof. The individual may feel detached from the illness and the situation.   

Downplaying severity

The individual who is reluctant to self-isolate may also have rather cavalier views about the consequences of catching the virus. One example is the President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, who played down the threat by calling COVID-19 ‘a small flu’, while contradicting his own Health Minister’s position on self-isolation and social distancing. Similarly, a person refusing to self-isolate thinks that even if he/she fell ill, the consequences would be marginal. The perceived severity of the virus can even be completely rejected, and the individual might argue that ‘coronavirus is just a mild cold’ or that ‘patients have mainly headaches, nothing more’. 

These first two points are fundamental, because they create an illusion of low levels of frequency and severity of the illness.

Herd Instinct

Rebels may also be following a herd instinct. They see people strolling outside or in parks despite the lockdown, and seeing others flouting the rules gives them a mis-placed confidence. Without obvious visual proof of lockdown compliance, these people may take not take it seriously. To make matters worse, when leading politicians raise doubt about the pandemic, it further encourages non-compliance to the lockdown rules. So, for instance, when President Trump said: ‘Our country wasn’t built to be shut down’, he gave further reasons for rebels not to comply with the rules and put the lives of millions at risk.

Belief that self-isolation doesn’t work

The refusal to self-isolate can also be based on the belief that self-isolation doesn’t work. A person refusing to restrict their movement can contribute to spread the disease despite the lockdown. And when they are arrested, they might even try to convince the police of the merits of their behaviour by arguing that staying at home hasn’t and won’t stop the pandemic as the number of deaths is increasing by the day…  

In the US, several groups even recently gathered to protest against stay-at-home orders, such as in Michigan, Ohio, Texas, Oregon or California, despite the virus killing thousands of people in the country.

Biased costs/benefits analysis

Finally, the rebels might base their refusal on a cost/benefits analysis of confinement. They don’t think that the boredom, family arguments, stress, risk of job loss and atrophy of social life are worth it. They refuse to see any of the upsides of self-isolation – not just those that benefit public health – but things like being able to spend more time with loved ones, reading quietly, tidying, spring-cleaning, crafts, resting, training. In fact, after a while, rebels may no longer see any benefit and only consider the “costs” of self-isolation.

In conclusion, non-compliance with self-isolation rules stems from several factors such as a false perception of the low severity of the virus, mimetic behaviour of non-compliance, belief in the ineffectiveness of self-isolation and a cost-benefit analysis of the lockdown, exacerbating these costs and watering down the benefits. For the lockdown to have its full effect, public authorities must not only increase sanctions, but must also concentrate on educating the public, especially if it takes a while for the virus to disappear.

Bertrand Venard is Professor at Audencia Business School (France) and the Oxford Internet Institute (University of Oxford, UK).

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