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Why Your Neighbor Won’t Stay-At-Home

Reactions to the COVID-19 restrictions may not be for the reasons you suspect.

The month of May witnessed increasing acts of civil disobedience towards COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Although all 50 states began taking steps towards re-opening, the pace of these steps vary widely state-to-state and are likely to be challenged by an increasing number of individuals eager to resume their normal lives as summer weather and holidays approach.

For many, these acts of stay-at-home defiance provoke strong counterreactions. What kind of person, they wonder, would jeopardize the health of their communities and even their own families just to go to the beach (California) or bar (Wisconsin)? Is this behavior a sign of low intelligence or poor education? Self-absorption? Right-wing extremism? And, particularly when this behavior is present in a neighbor, friend, or family member instead of a stranger on television, what is the appropriate response? I argue here that disobedience to COVID-19 policies is in most cases not a result of ignorance or even political affiliation, but of personality. The ramifications of this distinction are far from trivial.

One of the few hard facts in psychological research is that people differ. Although even casual observation proves that people differ in physical characteristics such as height and weight, it required decades of research to establish the existence of individual differences in personality characteristics. Despite this slower road to acceptance, we now know that individual differences in personality characteristics are as large as in physical characteristics—and even more influential.

This statement may seem implausible when you consider just how much people differ physically. Position an average American male (5’10” and 180 pounds) next to basketball player, Shaquille O’Neal (7’2” and 300+ pounds), or strongman, Hafthor Bjornsson (6’9” and 400+ pounds), for example, and you could reasonably wonder if you were looking at members of the same species. Yet even these extreme physical disparities do not exceed the personality differences between the average person and the compassion of Mother Teresa, the gregariousness of Martin Luther King, Jr., or the hyper-competitiveness of Michael Jordan.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Source: Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing individual differences in a personality characteristic called loss aversion. Studied by researchers such as Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, loss aversion refers to the tendency of a person to prefer the avoidance of loss over the benefit of gain. Research having participants play monetary games shows, for example, that an average person dislikes losing $5 about twice as much as they like winning $5. This natural tendency towards loss aversion results in predictable real-world behavior about money, such as common cautions about gambling or investing in the stock market.

The influence of loss aversion in the real world is not limited to money, however. Among other outcomes, people with a greater tendency towards loss aversion are also less likely to start businesses and more likely to stay in unsatisfying jobs and relationships. Although many might consider these latter outcomes negative or harmful, loss aversion also helps in many ways. Loss aversion helps children avoid talking to strangers, for example, and for most adults to follow laws.

The benefits of being loss averse may also extend to the pandemic. For a loss-averse person in the COVID-19 era, the risks of illness or death outweigh the inconvenience of wearing masks or social distancing.

Because personality characteristics vary, loss aversion is not universal. Many people fall on the opposite side of loss aversion, what is most commonly called risk tolerance. Risk tolerance is not related to intelligence; in fact, loss aversion-risk tolerance differences are seen in many other animal species (risk-tolerant rats get first dibs on the cheese while also suffering more premature deaths from cats).

Fundamentally, the personality of a risk-tolerant organism disposes them to view the risk-reward ratio in a situation differently than to an organism higher in loss aversion. In the human laboratory, risk-tolerant people pursue monetary rewards more aggressively instead of playing it safe. This results in risk-tolerant people typically being both the biggest winners (when risky bets pay off) and the biggest losers (when risk bets blow up) in these artificial money games. Risk tolerance manifests in many real-life behaviors, as well, including the mixture of positive and negative outcomes present among the loss-averse population.

The downsides of risk tolerance may seem obvious. Greater dispositions to try drugs, drive fast, and break laws, for example, are just some of the most apparent manifestations. Yet it is inaccurate to view risk tolerance in a simplistically negative way. History has been shaped at least as much for the good by risk-tolerant individuals as for the bad.

Consider, for example, the high risk tolerance of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, knowing that treason charges and execution awaited them at the hands of the British Empire. Had the Founding Fathers been less risk tolerant and more loss averse, would they have embraced the precarious path towards forming a new country?

Centuries earlier, exceptionally high risk tolerance was present in famous figures such as Jesus, Galileo, and Gandhi. Beyond whatever wisdom or skill they possessed, their influence clearly also depended on a remarkable ability to view enormous personal risk as acceptable relative to the rewards of their ideas.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay
Source: Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Individual differences in loss aversion and risk tolerance are as great in the present as in any period of history, with the effects now multiplied by the relatively larger populations of modern times and the rapid visibility of behaviors through the media and internet. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 era has unintentionally served as a home-bound crucible for pitting risk-tolerant members of society against the loss averse.

To the risk tolerant, the same .5 to 1 percent risk of dying from COVID-19 feels small in comparison to the personal liberties and freedoms they wish to regain; to the loss averse, the same risk feels much larger and the rationale for temporary restrictions on services, travel, and freedoms seems incontrovertible. Predictably, when individuals who differ in loss aversion/risk tolerance interact about COVID-19, their irreconcilable risk-reward views rapidly degenerate into accusations about one another’s intelligence, education, or morality.

If you are willing to entertain the perspective that it is the nature of people to differ in their perception of risks and rewards, it unlocks more productive options for civil dialogue and shared decision-making during the current pandemic. When we disagree with someone’s opinion, the reflex is to argue and educate. When we disagree with someone’s moral choices, the reflex is to criticize and punish. Instead of these two options alone, consider loss aversion and risk tolerance as akin to the difference between an introvert and an extravert. The introvert and extravert may see and experience the world differently and find it hard to understand the other’s choices, but they generally don’t descend into personal accusations. In many cases, the lives of the introvert and the extravert have even been enhanced by their appreciating the worldview of the other.

How we view interpersonal differences—about COVID-19 or any other subject—is what produces discord, tolerance, or even mutual benefit. It is unfortunate that our instincts and social learning dispose us towards the worst of these outcomes. Referring again to the Founding Fathers, they recognized both the intrinsic good of individual differences by designing a government to maximize personal liberties and the inherent dangers of individual differences by designing a tangled web of checks and balances in government to shield the people from any single view becoming too dominant.