No….! This is not one of those countless ramblings on the economy or human lives. That quandary is as no-brainer as it ever comes! It was a weekday afternoon, and I was randomly checking on the latest news for the day. And my screen read, “India’s tally touched 7 lakh-mark and the death toll has crossed 20,000. India has overtaken Russia to occupy the third position on the worst-affected countries’ list”. If only Grandpa Rick could come to our rescue with his own special formula for vaccines. Before I know ….bam! another news flash “In the last 24 hours, 22,752 new coronavirus cases and 482 deaths have been reported”. My heart cringed for them. My mind was trying to think of what could we possibly do without bias until the vaccination is discovered.
Then, a sudden epiphany!!
The science of bias
Many behaviors, especially health-related, involve a trade-off between- immediate and future outcomes. For example, smoking has both immediate benefits (temporary stress relief) and future costs (increased risk of lung cancer). Or consuming junk has an immediate benefit (temporary satisfaction) and future cost (loss of appetite/obesity). Choosing immediate benefit in spite of possible future pain is termed as “Present bias”
In the case of Covid-19, not staying at home is the epitome of this. The pleasure of going out (current benefit), over potential risk of contracting Coronavirus in the future (uncertain future cost). Emphasizing the “uncertainty” means not every excursion outside the house would result in Covid-19 infection. This present bias explains why people, against their judgment, find it difficult to adhere to the Covid norms.
This present bias leads to various changes in behavioral choices. The policymakers striving to make people follow social distancing norms can leverage this bias and encourage people to stay put. Interventions involving ‘low-cost rewards’ could potentially be a means to increase adherence to the basic norms (current benefits). This involves a concept called “Nudge theory”
Bias people by rewarding the choice
For instance, in short term, people can be nudged to stay at home by providing them with free amenities such as electricity, internet access, or by reducing the interest rate on various loan policies, or even by gamification. By providing such enablers, people choose to stay home during lock-downs. One interesting nudge of providing children with toy-shaped soaps with enticing fragrance makes them choose to wash their hands frequently.
A field experiment study in India found that the installation of low-cost soap dispensers in homes improved hand washing in peri-urban and rural households.
The pandemic is no doubt scary, especially given our fears of the unknown. However, what makes it even worse is the way the current media sensationalizes creating a deep sense of doomsday. I mean, how often we have read, a world-ending prediction in the recent past. We decide on options based on connotations of its representation and this is known as the “Framing Effect”.
When used rightly framing effect can be of great use to educate people to stay at home and wash their hands regularly. Reinforcing precautionary messages repeatedly through catchy phrases, mnemonics or pictures, catches people’s attention. It could play a small but significant role in encouraging them to stay at home.
We tend to believe that we are at comparatively less risk of Covid-19 than other people or our peers, even if they adhere to preventive practices. This tendency is “Optimism bias”. In other words, people see themselves as less susceptible to risk, than others.
Providing peer comparison feedback or communicating risks accurately can be helpful for addressing this bias. In general, optimism is a good coping mechanism. It gives us a sense of control and reduces our anxiety. However, during a pandemic like the coronavirus, if we don’t think something bad is going to happen, we might probably not bother changing our behaviors.
A recent study of more than 4,000 Europeans in France, Italy, the UK, and Switzerland showed that about half of the participants thought they were less likely than other people of getting infected. And only 5% of respondents thought they’d be more likely to become infected.
Often, social norms and the behavior of peers such as friends, family members, and colleagues affect our behaviors. I mean how often we have done something just because our friends did. For our parents to humiliate us asking, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” This is “Herd Behavior”. People consider a certain behavioral aspect, to be good or bad purely based on other people’s preferences, to mimic them. An authoritative person can make use of this trigger of the human mind and can share success stories on how they educated people to beat corona. Thereby making the others follow the necessary norms.
Surprisingly, these entire phenomena fall under the gambit of Behavioral Economics. Using this we can encourage people to engage in preventive behavior effectively. They may assist policymakers in identifying avenues to improve people’s decision-making. Also, nudge them towards behaviors related to the prevention of Covid-19. This pandemic is hitting humanity where it hurts in the most complex way — the human mind.
Once we acknowledge the power of individual behavior in epidemics – behavioral insights are not a choice but a necessity in our collective action against Coronavirus. It was always economy & people lives, and never either-or. Boy didn’t see that coming. Did you?