Professor Ethan Bueno de Mesquita

CHICAGO – Consistent messages from national leaders are necessary to change deeply ingrained social norms like shaking hands and socializing in restaurants, which are crucial adjustments for disrupting the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new paper coauthored by Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, the Sydney Stein Professor and Deputy Dean at the Harris School of Public Policy, and Mehdi Shadmehr, a visiting associate professor at Harris.

The two researchers study a model of social distancing in which people care about two things: engaging in the correct amount of social distancing, and conforming to how other people behave. They find that when a new and rare virus like COVID-19 emerges, the public’s collective willingness to engage in social distancing is compromised by inertia when it comes to adopting what may seem like jarring changes to our collective behavior.  

Despite regular guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and state and local governments about what to do, many Americans find it difficult to understand what precautions they should take, and whether radical measures like stay-at-home orders or social distancing are truly necessary.  The reason is that these prescriptions run counter to old norms, and there is not a common understanding of what new behavior is expected.

“People care about doing right, but also about how they are perceived. You may know wearing a mask is responsible, but wouldn’t it be an easier choice if you knew your neighbors were going to wear one as well?” said Bueno de Mesquita. “Our study shows that it is not enough for us each to know what is right. We also need to know that others know it. “

Mehdi Shadmehr

The authors find that when people believe themselves to be poorly informed, they tend to put undue weight on past experiences. They look to examples they already understand such as typical flu season precautions. This feeds inertia that can lead to a lack of conformity and individuals deciding for themselves what social distancing measures to practice. 

Similarly, a fear of rudeness, awkwardness, or the appearance of overreaction, can create incentives to continue handshaking, kissing, or attending large functions. This finding may shed light on well-attended spring break activities or St. Patrick’s Day gatherings at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

The authors conclude that in the current situation, clear, consistent, and frequent public messages from a national leader can lead to a level of common knowledge about the need for social distancing and conformity with new social norms over previously understood ones. They find further that public messages are preferable to private messages because public messages provide confidence that others hear the same message and are likely to behave accordingly.   

“Only public messages from a national leader can sufficiently counteract our reliance on personal experience,” Bueno de Mesquita said. “Though the President is our most obvious national leader, other leaders with large public platforms, from celebrities to clergy, can help to shift dangerous social norms and convince a broad swath of the public to avoid that handshake, even if it’s awkward.”