Why Some Ignore Social Distancing Guidelines

The present bias can make individuals place extra weight on immediate rewards.

Posted Mar 27, 2020

In many states, people have been urged to stay home. They have been asked to avoid unnecessary social contact. However, some reports show that some young adults have been gathering with friends or failing to keep a proper social distance from others. Failures to cooperate might endanger the health of others by spreading the virus. Convincing people to limit contact with others is the only way to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

All behavioral decisions involve tradeoffs among costs and benefits occurring at different times. For example, to exercise or overeat, individuals can choose for one of two outcomes of an immediate benefit of pleasure, or a delayed benefit or uncertain benefit, such as health.

The main problem with most health choices is that the costs (adverse consequences) occur in the future, whereas the pleasures from them occur in the present. As the reward becomes more remote, it has less value in the present. Specifically, the waiting can be viewed as a cost and is weighed against the delayed reward. Thus, delay alone can make a good decision into a bad one, or vice versa.

A key psychological factor that contributes to the decision to adhere to the public health guidelines is present bias. A present-biased person will place too much weight on present costs and benefits and too little on the future ones. They attach lower value to health-promoting activities, such as prevention and treatment that would lead to long-term benefits.

Thus, public health campaigns stressing the long-term benefits of adhering to social distancing would be unlikely to succeed if intended recipients of such information are present-biased. Present bias raises concerns for public officials since individuals’ decisions might have consequences for others.

Generally speaking, we want things now rather than later. There is psychological discomfort associated with self-denial. People are not equally patient. Young adults tend to be impulsive. For them, immediate rewards weigh disproportionately in their decision making. The future (e.g., two weeks) is a long way off, particularly if there are appealing temptations (socializing with friends) in front of them right now. This becomes more difficult when there is no foreseeable end to the restriction.

For some young people, the coronavirus seems like a distant problem that only affects older people. They have also been told repeatedly that they are at a lower risk of infection. So they downplay the significance of the virus.

Our sense of time is also altered by our moods. For example, boredom can alter the perception of time. Time seems to go painfully slow when we are bored. Especially when we are deprived of social life. The perception of time as lasting too long is associated with too high of a cost, which leads to the selection of alternatives with more immediate outcomes.

What can public officials do to overcome the present bias? Becoming aware of these forces actually helps to improve the bias and convince people to follow social distancing. Reorienting individuals away from immediate gratification and toward making more future-oriented decisions is a logical step. Nudges such as constant educational reminders are needed.