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Isolation to stop the spread of coronavirus makes sense. But why is it still so hard to stay inside?

It seems like a simple request. So why aren’t we all doing it?

On March 14, it was life as usual for many a on a sunny Saturday in Boston area despite the threat of the coronavirus.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It didn’t take long for the memes to start.

“AMERICA, EVERY WEEKEND: I just wanna Netflix and Chill, lol.

THE WEEKEND EVERYONE NEEDS TO STAY INSIDE: It’s my God-given right to go outside and lick whatever I want.”

As governments across the world urged, advised, and eventually ordered people to stay home and away from others to avoid transmitting the coronavirus, many people did stay inside. But enough didn’t, and though they probably didn’t lick whatever they wanted, they certainly didn’t practice social distancing.

With guidelines and attitudes changing daily, it’s almost impossible to get an accurate snapshot of the measures most Americans are taking. One Harris Poll survey from last week indicated that a majority of people were increasingly cautious, avoiding grocery stores and handshakes; on Tuesday, Unacast, a company that analyzes mobile phone data, released an interactive “Social Distancing Scoreboard,” showing that average mobility has decreased as cases have increased.

That said, Spring Break carried on as normal for many college kids in South Padre Island; one bro in Miami Beach, just after local authorities closed the beach, told CBS News, “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not gonna let it stop me from partying.” (He later apologized.) Actress Evangeline Lilly was both excoriated and applauded on social media after posting a picture on Instagram of a cup of tea with the caption, “Just dropped my kids off at gymnastics camp. They all washed their hands before going in. They are playing and laughing. #businessasusual” That was March 17, four days after the United States declared a national emergency and the same day that a leaked government document warned that the pandemic might last 18 months or longer. On Tuesday, CNN reported that at least one person in Kentucky was infected with the virus after attending a “coronavirus party." And it’s not just the young: Several outlets, including this paper and The New Yorker, published anguished pieces on trying to get Boomer parents to stay home and stop going to work, to their book clubs, to dinners with friends.


“Our governor closed the bars and restaurants and he did that because people were still going to bars and restaurants,” said Dr. Jonathan Kanter, director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington in Seattle. “The public health experts wish for it to be voluntary. We know that how people have responded to past outbreaks, like Ebola and H1N1, that when quarantine and isolation become mandatory we will have more negative social consequences afterwards. But voluntary in an extremely individualist, heterogeneous society like ours is a tall ask and it wasn’t working.”


The message from all health authorities is that we all need to change our behavior — limit our physical contact with others, stay home, do not go to playgrounds and shops, wash our hands, don’t hug — to “flatten the curve.” We know we have to. So why is it hard to do?

For a start, many of us like being around other people — loneliness wouldn’t be such an international crisis if we didn’t. Humans are cooperative, social animals (or rather, we’re primed to be social with people we consider in our group); this impulse to maintain social connections runs deep, underpinning some of our most fundamental feelings about survival. During stressful times like this, we want to band together. It’s one of the cruellest twists of this pandemic that we can’t, at least not physically.


Beyond that, there’s another reason why it’s hard to follow the #newnormal: As Kanter pointed out, “In general, it’s very hard for all of us to change our own behavior.”

Part of this has to do with how we make decisions. We create mental models of the world as we understand it — the risks, relationships, dynamics, past experiences, and current information all become part of a simulation that we employ to make predictions and decisions about our actions. At the moment, our mental simulation is necessarily unpracticed; nothing like this has ever happened before.

“It’s human — you’ve learned to think about things in one way and somebody tells you think about it in another,” explained Baruch Fischhoff, a Carnegie Mellon University behavioral scientist who studies how humans perceive and make decisions about risk. “You’ve got to rework your thinking.”

In order to build up a mental model of our current situation, Fischhoff says, we need information that is hard to pinpoint at the moment: How many cases of the virus are in our specific area? How fast the virus is spreading, what are the guidelines suggested by our local authorities? What are the specific risks to ourselves and the people we come in contact with? If we had all that information, then we might be able to balance it against our individual needs and tolerance for risk.


“If you have the rudiments of a mental model and somebody says, 'Can you think it through in this way?’ I think a lot of people would be able to and do the right thing, but because they don’t have a complete mental model, they don’t,” said Fischhoff.

And this is the challenge. With information changing daily, it’s difficult to develop and maintain an accurate mental model. And much of the official guidance we’re hearing is overly general.

“You need to make messages that are tailored, such as making messages that are for young families versus older individuals who don’t have young children," said Dr. Crystal Watson of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The more we can tailor and give people specific information about how they can take care of themselves, the better.”

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie is an American journalist living in England.