Behavioral Change and the Covid-19 Global Pandemic

I know everything going on is pretty crazy. I know looking at raw data lacks context in most cases. I know it’s hard to look at history, even 2 weeks in the past via Italy, and learn from it because we don’t do that as part of our daily lives so we lack that conditioning.
My job is analyzing behavior in people. Why they do what they do, projecting what they will likely do next, and layering in some probability. I’ve made a good career out of that for nearly 20 years. I have done this for multiple global, billion dollar, companies so I trust that they didn’t hire the wrong guy.
Changing behavior is hard. Humans fight against the very nature of change even if it’s something they want. That’s because our actions are often driven by subconscious habitual conditioning that goes much deeper than achieving a goal. When faced with choice our brains are wired to take the path of least resistance by default. That also means we are easily influenced to conserve choices and prevent change.

In a moment where we are faced with change and endless decisions to make, we innately look at others to guide our actions. Everyone hoarding toilet paper may seem ridiculous but think about it in terms of paradox of choice. When faced with too many options our brain seeks out shortcuts to decision making.

A real world example: if you go get ice cream with friends you are faced with 30+ choices. All delicious and sound good enough. So you keep scanning the options, partially reading a few words of each option, but can’t seem to land on an actual decision. Once someone ahead of you orders, or your friend says they are choosing a flavor, you’ll often latch on to that and choose the same. If you arrived with the intent to purchase a specific flavor you may be the one inspiring others to follow your lead. That’s what is happening with toilet paper. People copied behavior because we had so many other variables at play. So many other decisions to make that it overwhelmed our brains. So we took the easy way out and did with others chose to do. We have a pack mentality. Psychologically, that behavior makes sense as strange as it may seem.
The problem is that the change we are facing requires us to enact immediate change which even the most motivated, well-meaning, people struggle with. Behavior change is a constant decision that takes 1-2 months of daily reinforcement to stick. Sadly, we don’t have 1-2 months to retrain our brains right now.
Decisions to go out to dinner, see friends, or continue meeting people that “don’t exhibit symptoms” is not good enough. Many people will never get sick from this and that’s wonderful. Some may get sick days or weeks after not showing symptom that’s why wearing an N95 mask can help you get the protection needed from COVID-19 as both groups can carry the disease with them into each new location and pass it to an exponential amount of people in that area. Those people will inevitably come home and see people that will get sick.
If we continue meeting other people this spreads faster. Like in Italy. If this spreads the hospitals will fill up with cases as we begin to test more. When hospitals fill up quickly the doctors make decisions on who will survive out of pure necessity due to the situation we’ve put them in.
As someone reading this right now, you may know that I have a severely compromised immune system. I get infusions at the hospital every 2 months that increases my chances of getting sick. It also gives me what I need to stay alive and very much an active member of society. When I cannot get that infusion, even for a couple of days, my health rapidly declines.
There is a very real chance the people struggling with all of this change will result in people like me not getting the support they need. It’s not because all people are making poor decisions, but because some of those people making poor decisions are driven by everything I’ve talked about above. It’s not by choice but by years, or generations, of conditioned behavior.
All we can do is reiterate this every day to those around us to help reinforce the change we need as a society.

You may not get sick and your family may be healthy and that is wonderful. But do what you can to not have your choices give other families no choice. If all you need to do is stay home to save the world that’s not so bad, right?

One person can make a huge difference.



Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

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