5 Thinking Errors That Could Sink Social Distancing

These thinking mistakes put continued social distancing compliance at risk.

Posted Apr 24, 2020

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Staying compliant with stay-at-home rules is hard. So is staying at home of your own accord if your local area starts to ease restrictions prematurely.

Some experts have been surprised at how compliant the public has been overall with stay-at-home orders. But although many people have been compliant, common faulty thinking errors risk undermining people's continued compliance. When you're aware of these errors, you can stay vigilant and help others do the same.

Common thinking errors that undermine social distancing include:

1. "I broke the rules and saw my friends or family last week and I'm fine, everything must be ok."

A common thinking error is that people overgeneralize from just one incident. If people broke stay-at-home rules to see their families over Easter, and they didn't get sick, then many people are likely now feeling an overly optimistic sense of safety from that one data point.

2. "My neighbors look like they're getting back to normal, everything must be fine."

Three houses on my street have had parties since last week. Cars seem to be coming and going from people's driveways more often. Peer and other social pressures play a role in whether people continue to stay at home. Once people observe a few people start to break stay-at-home rules, it starts to quickly become more socially acceptable.

Especially during a time of anxiety, people are watching other people for cues, so any signs of other people easing up aren't likely to go unnoticed.

3. "It's sunny and nice outside, everything must be fine."

Another common thinking error is for us to make a judgment of safety based on a factor that's quite irrelevant. Sure, flu-like illnesses are more prevalent in fall and winter—but warmer weather and signs of spring in no way make it safe to resume normal activities if other data aren't pointing to that.

Even very subtle signs that everything is back to normal may give people a false sense of safety. For instance, a new product I've been excited to try arrived at my local Whole Foods; I noticed that even that lulled me a little into thinking, "Things are more normal than I thought they were."

4. "Are the cool kids staying at home or taking risks?"

As well as generally paying attention to what other people are doing, we also pay particular attention to what socially influential people are doing, whether this is celebrities or "cool" people within our own social groups. To me at least, staying-at-home and wearing a mask in public has felt socially desirable—sort of like how, under normal circumstances, it's good to be seen using your own bags at the supermarket. And there have even been plenty of photos of celebrities in social distancing mode to back up the notion that no one is immune.

However, we may reach a point when it starts to become more socially desirable to be taking risks rather than avoiding them, particularly within certain subgroups—like if it's becomes seen as "not macho" or "not tough" to be maintaining social distancing and limiting non-essential activities. We're very vulnerable to this thinking shift because typically being seen to be worried about something is viewed as less socially desirable than being viewed as confident and not worried.

Some folks have genuinely lost social confidence while being isolated and are anxious about things like dating again. These people will feel a sense of pressure to include themselves when their friends start gathering again—even if, from a virus standpoint, it's too early to be mixing in person again. 

Hookups, in particular, are an interesting component of this. Some people are going to find it incredibly difficult not to succumb to social pressure if someone they've previously hooked up with or met virtually during our stay-at-home period indicates they're ready to meet in person before the other person is ready.

5. Justifications about why you need to be leaving your house.

If you're going to break stay-at-home rules, it's probably because you're combining one of the above errors with a more specific justification. For instance, perhaps a friend's business has reopened and you want to go in to support them. Or perhaps you justify that your kid needs new shoes so you go into a discount store to buy those and do some other shopping while you're there. People often think "I deserve it" e.g., "I've been looking after these kids who are home from school for weeks, I deserve to treat myself to browsing a store."

While single behaviors might not be problematic on their own, they start getting problematic if everyone starts doing them and if everyone starts extrapolating from "I didn't get sick when I did that" to thinking that they're safe already. Remember that a lot of people tend to have the same ideas, like how we saw people flocking to National Parks early on in the crisis.

How can you stay strong and stay compliant with staying-at-home rather than fall into these thinking errors?

  • Don't just pay attention to people breaking stay-at-home rules—pay attention to people keeping them up, too. Notice the neighbors on your street who are staying at home, not just those whose cars are in and out of their driveway every five minutes. Notice who is wearing a mask at the supermarket, not just who isn't.
  • Stay aware of the biases I've mentioned so that you can spot them early if you fall into any of these traps.
  • Be data-orientated. Instead of paying attention to random signs, pay attention to the actual data. I have my state's coronavirus data page on my bookmarks bar and check it one to two times a week, to see if my local area is actually getting any safer.
  • Recognize that your behavior impacts other people's. If you're casually wearing your mask around your neck at the store or while exercising, instead of wearing it properly on your face, you're encouraging other people to do the same. Maybe you don't give COVID-19 to anyone—but maybe they do.

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