Why people are flouting coronavirus social distancing precautions that we know save lives

Experts say factors like risk aversion play a heavy role.

May 30, 2020, 10:57 AM

People packed into a pool at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri.

Parks in New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak, jammed with sunbathers.

A crowded brunch spot in Colorado with diners celebrating Mother's Day.

With more than 100,000 Americans dead and rising from the novel coronavirus, health experts and other leaders have been pleading for people to adhere to their strict guidelines to keep people safe.

But all too recently, these and other examples, large and small, have emerged of people blatantly defying social distancing and face-covering rules.

Revelers celebrate Memorial Day weekend at Osage Beach of the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, May 23, 2020.
Twitter/Lawler50 via Reuters

Psychology experts said they haven't been surprised by this type of behavior, since it's been a long-standing issue with public health: the ability for people to assess risk. Rajita Sinha, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University and the founding director of the Yale Stress Center, said the uncertainty about when the pandemic will end, access to information and one's underlying beliefs can influence someone to flout precautions.

"Those features of the current pandemic really put into gear people’s need for control which is an important aspect of coping," she told ABC News. "Gaining control is a basic way we cope."

Sinha and other health experts say there is no easy solution to the problem, but there are ways to help those individuals see the need for health precautions.

She noted that risk is a very abstract concept to people. While some people may look at the COVID-related news and feel fear from the images of sick patients, others may want to take their chances, Sinha said.

"If you’re in a bad scenario where there is a lot of danger…if you worried you may not be able to get yourself out, there is a mechanism where we just plow along," she said.

PHOTO: Protesters try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber after the American Patriot Rally for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., April 30, 2020.
Protesters try to enter the Michigan House of Representative chamber after the American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., April 30, 2020.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Joshua Ackerman, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who has studied behaviors related to infectious diseases, said individualism also plays a part in adhering to guidelines.

"If people think masks are self-protection and you don’t think you’ll need protection, you won’t wear them," he told ABC News.

Sten Vermund, the dean of Yale School of Public Health, likened the behavior to running a red light.

"They don’t perceive enough personal risk and they don’t have a sense of altruism that is acute," he told ABC News.

Attitudes on masks and social distancing are mixed in the U.S., according to polling from ABC News and Ipsos. At the end of April, a large majority of the country (82%) were concerned about coronavirus and just 14% thought stay-at-home orders restricted personal liberty. Earlier in April, an ABC News/Ipsos poll found that 55% of Americans had worn a mask in the last week.

While guidance on social distancing has largely been consistent and long-standing -- staying 6 feet away from others to prevent the transmission of respiratory droplets, avoiding large gatherings and staying home -- wearing a mask has been has been much murkier. Public health officials initially suggested that people not wear masks and instead reserve them for health workers, but on April 3, they recommended that people wear cloth masks in public to prevent asymptomatic transmission.

That message has been further confused by President Trump generally refusing to wear a mask, despite the CDC recommendation.

Information, particularly that which is circulating in one's immediate circle, is an important factor for people's behavior's during the pandemic, according to Ackerman. Even though the U.S. leads the world with over 1.7 million cases, there are whole counties, particularly in rural communities, where there are few or no cases. The pandemic looks very different in those places compared to hotspots such as New York City.

Ackerman said the lack of centralized and consistent health-related messaging from local, state and federal leaders and the polarization of news sources will lead people to make different choices.

Crowd of people are seen at the C&C in Castle Rock restaurant, celebrating Mother's Day amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Castle Rock, Colo., May 10, 2020.
Nick Puckett via Reuters, FILE

"People listen to information and they use that to calculate their own risk. In situations like this, sometimes the accuracy of the information is far less important to the availability of that information," he said.

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Sinha said that the sometimes lax response to COVID can be amplified where others act similarly for the same reasons. She pointed out the examples of rallies and other demonstrations of people who have expressed frustration with the rise in unemployment and the loss of other social norms.

"They’re worried about work and unemployment and other stressors affecting them and family. They’re not paying attention to everything else," Sinha said. Many protesters at reopening rallies around the country have, however, worn masks.

PHOTO: A view of people enjoying the weather at Hudson River Park during the coronavirus pandemic on May 16, 2020, in New York
A view of people enjoying the weather at Hudson River Park during the coronavirus pandemic on May 16, 2020, in New York.
John Nacion/Star Max via Newscom

Vermund said there are also Americans who don't have direct connections with the people most vulnerable to COVID, like the elderly or immunocompromised, so it may take longer for them to grasp the need for precautions. Although the true number of infected is unknown, just a fraction of the country has had confirmed COVID cases and a vast number of those have been concentrated in the urban Northeast.

"We lived through this during the HIV era," he explained. "During the early years, 1981, 1982, people were not changing their behaviors because they weren’t so close to people who got ill. By 1985, the pandemic was so striking and so many people got to know people who got ill and died, that behaviors started to change."

Ackerman said there will likely be increasing cases of people not adhering to social distancing and face-covering precautions as states being to reopen their economies. He noted the psychological notion of "goal completion" -- in this case, the sense that the pandemic may be over because life appears to be returning to normal -- may give some people a false sense of security.

"If we think about the information provided to people...one of the goals given was that we have to flatten the curve. To the extent that people think that the curve has been flattened, they might think the worst is behind them," he said.

Crowds gather at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, May 25, 2020. The warm Memorial Day weather brought out large crowds to popular parks and beaches despite the shelter-in-place order amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle via AP

He and other health experts, however, said the public can still turn things around and increase compliance with social distancing rules. Sinha said people are more prone to comply with health orders if they have a clear understanding of how it affects the people around them.

Even if it is just one person articulating to a friend or family member that the face masks and distracting practices help the greater good, it could get them to change their minds and pass it on, according to Sinha.

"There is no reason it can’t be done if you can build a narrative around it. If you articulate the full narrative that we are shifting gears and preparing for the next phase, some people will listen," she said.

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