Israeli Researcher Finds a Clever Way to Enforce Social Distancing

Research shows that a large part of the public quickly develops indifference to risks, including the risk of coronavirus. How do we overcome the attitude that ‘it won’t happen to me’?

Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel
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Beachgoers enjoy a sunny day at Bondi Beach despite growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in Sydney, Australia, on March 20.
Beachgoers enjoy a sunny day at Bondi Beach despite growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in Sydney, Australia, on March 20. Credit: Loren Elliott/ REUTERS
Asaf Ronel
Asaf Ronel

In face of the spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world are tightening lockdown measures, along with punishments for citizens who break the new rules.

In China, where the virus first erupted, it appears that the isolation measures are bearing fruit and the epidemic is coming to a halt; the curfew is gradually being lifted in certain parts of the country and people are cautiously returning to routine.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

But what is the most effective way of enforcing social distancing? How can citizens be motivated to cooperate with the tough policy and stay at home for many days or weeks? Research by a behavioral economics expert indicates that the main problem with getting the public to cooperate is the phenomenon of “it won’t happen to me” – that is, within a short time, a considerable part of the population will develop indifference to the risks and their compliance with the isolation instructions will decrease.

The research of Prof. Ido Erev, of the industrial engineering and management department at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, also suggests a possible solution to the problem – something he calls “friendly enforcement.” He says this method has proven itself in previous studies and has succeeded in “causing factory workers in Israel to observe safety procedures as strictly as Japanese workers.”

A local police officer checks on people at the Highway exit for Molfetta, southern Italy.Credit: ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/ REUTERS

Psychological economics studies identify two opposing responses that characterize people facing an opportunity or a risk that has a low likelihood of occurring. The first kind of response – the more familiar one – is increased sensitivity to a risk. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this response triggers behavior motivated by panic, like emptying supermarket shelves, or the leadership’s overreaction to that panic and the implementation of severe measures that will do excessive damage to the economy.

A considerable chunk of the research in behavioral economics, including the classic studies by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is focused on this oversensitivity. According to the research, it can explain why an individual can buy both car insurance and a lottery ticket – that is, at the same time overestimating the probability that a rare event will occur, be it the theft of a car or picking the winning numbers.

The second reaction to risk is rare, says Erev: underestimation. In the case of the pandemic, this tendency can lead to indifference to the risk – and to a more rapid spread of the virus as a result. This, in turn, leads to a rapid rise in the number of people infected and the collapse of the health system.

“My research has found that the deviation toward overestimation of the odds is stronger only when people react to a description of the problem,” says Erev. “When I tell you that there’s a chance you will win X amount of money in the lottery, or there’s a chance that your car will be stolen, you think about the probability and you say, ‘yes, I want that’ – the lottery ticket or the insurance policy. However, when people are experiencing the problem, the opposite deviation occurs. After having the experience, most decision-makers operate in accordance with the approach that ‘it won’t happen to me.’”

Prof. Ido Erev. Suggests a possible solution to the problem: 'friendly enforcement.'Credit: rami shllush

Erev’s interest in the phenomenon began at the end of the 1990s, when many Israelis were buying tape players with removable panels for their cars. “Many people invested an additional 200 shekels (around $60 at the time) for a car radio of this type, but two weeks later they stopped removing the panel whenever they exited their car,” he says.

A number of his lab studies show that indeed, after a few tries, most of the subjects move into behavior that indicates underestimation of the risk they face. In one experiment, subjects were asked to choose between two possibilities 25 times – losing one shekel with 100 percent certainty or a 5 percent chance of losing 20 shekels. At first, most of the subjects “went for the sure thing,” but after two or three tries, 65 percent of them discovered that the odds weren’t so bad and chose the gamble.

In his research, Erev builds models to explain the different behaviors. He says the most accurate model for explaining the patterns he finds in his research assumes that people make decisions based on their recollections of a small number of similar situations in the past. “That’s how the human mind works – it examines what worked best when you encountered this pattern,” he says.

However, since the brain recalls only a small portion of the events, the likelihood that any of them will be one of those rare occurrences is slight – “The chance that you will remember precisely that time you caught a disease because you didn’t wash your hands is small,” he explains. However, among a certain percentage of the population, the tendency is to remember precisely those rare events – and therefore they do not stop overestimating the risk.

A family eat a picnic on the playing field at Betws-y-Coed in north Wales, last week.Credit: AFP

In the context of the coronavirus, these behavior patterns can create different problems, explain Erev. After a few days of obeying the isolation directives, he expects the majority of the population to start behaving like the risk does not affect them. In addition, because a minority of the population does not adopt this approach, and sticks with the overestimation of the risk (which is certainly justified during a pandemic), tensions could develop among family members who react differently to the risk – and these tensions can further encourage the isolation rules to be flouted.

In their research, he and his colleagues Amos Schurr and Dotan Rodensky examined methods for combating these deviations from the optimal behavior. They found that “friendly enforcement” is the most effective.

In a study on safety equipment they conducted at 11 factories in Israel, they found that most workers want to use the protection available to them, but don’t do it enough. For the study, the management agreed to forgo the high 700 shekel fines the floor managers were supposed on impose on violators of the safety rules, “but in actuality were hardly ever imposed.” Instead, the floor managers were asked to make a friendly comment to anyone who ignored the safety rules, something along the lines of, “You’re going around without ear protection and in the end you won’t be able to hear your grandchildren.” The managers were also asked to document the violation but to impose a fine only if it was repeated.

“We found that this minimal intervention succeeded in decreasing the violations of the safety rules from 50 percent to 10 percent,” says Erev. He believes that in order for gentle rule enforcement to work, two conditions must be fulfilled: The rules must be clear and the enforcement must be complete – that is, “the likelihood of identifying infringements of the rules must be close to 100 percent.”

Shoppers observe social distancing as they wait in a queue outside a supermarket in central London.Credit: AFP

How can friendly enforcement be applied in the context of a lockdown during an epidemic? Erev proposes using technology for complete enforcement, while integrating support into the technology to encourage citizens to use it. “For example,” he says, “developing an app that measures your well-being, such as your body temperature, and when you install it, you will also get a warning when you’re in close proximity to someone whose health rating is not perfect. There will be an incentive to install the app in order to avoid contact with people who are sick, and there will also be semi-automatic enforcement when people with a high fever don’t leave the house because the app will warn them that they are breaking the rules.”

Is it possible to implement ideas like this? Solutions of this kind pose difficulties of their own – privacy issues that are at the center of many debates in Israel – as well as practical constraints like development and distribution at a time when there are many other urgent tasks. However, on paper at least, even during a serious health crisis, it appears that there are creative ways to encourage the public to follow Health Ministry directives and there’s no need to only rely on violent enforcement and fines to keep people at home.

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