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The “Stay Home” Paradox: Do Nothing, See Nothing, Feel Nothing

Much of the country, if not the world, has been instructed by local and national government officials to stay at home. Some of these orders have been much more stringent than others but overall people tend to be listening. This is evidenced by the fact that many, if not all of you, will be reading this post from the “comfort” of your home.

In order to slow the spread of COVID-19, we have all been asked to maintain social distance by not socializing in-person and staying at home. As a result, millions of Americans have lost their jobs and millions more struggle to effectively “work from home.” The (perverse) choice – at least as currently presented by our leaders – is either preserving community health or rescuing national prosperity. Pick one: die or go broke.

Not surprisingly, the resulting financial pressure and pain from “shutting down” the economy has exacerbated feelings of resentment, frustration, and anger associated with being told to stay home. The validity, consistency, and sanctity of these stay home measures have been consistently chipped away at by commentators, rogue actors, and self-aggrandizing politicians. As a result, the backlash to social distancing may soon be upon us.

An Empty Choice

Ignoring the possibility of a politically-motivated revolt, the real challenge with such orders goes beyond the economic hardship. Maybe the angst some (most) of us feel by staying home transcends the visceral discomfort of perceived government overreach and interference into our personal “liberties.” Maybe the deeper problem here is that doing nothing (by staying at home) in order to see nothing (the absence of sickness) leaves us feeling… well, nothing.

None of us really know whether to feel good or bad when seeing the latest hospitalization and death statistics. Are things getting better or worse? Does practicing social distancing actually make any difference?

Policymakers, government officials, and government contractors should explore a few concepts relating to human psychology to unlock our collective path forward. While the country may “reopen” in the coming weeks and months, a more permanent return to normalcy (whatever it may look like) is much further off. Persistence in and adherence to stay home orders will be critical.

Expand the Sphere of Control

Images of the rows of empty shelves abound. Not being able to buy bottled water, bread, and hand sanitizer doesn’t shock us anymore. The pandemic has led to excessive lines and hoarding. Massive crowds gather at warehouse-type retailers and grocery stores. Not surprisingly, the supply chain has struggled to keep pace. The sense of scarcity and manic group-think, in turn, gives rise to more panic buying. And the downward cycle continues.

Research suggests that panic buying is a natural human reaction during such times. It is in part associated with our desires to have greater control over our lives. With the world around us spiraling, we feel helpless. Thus, we seek comfort in being able to bring home 100 rolls of toilet paper. After all, we are the owners of our toilet destinies.

By being told to stay at home by the government, we have lost a portion of our self-autonomy. We are not in control. Not in control of where we can go. Not in control of if we have a job. Not in control of when and where we can shop. And we are definitely not in control of the havoc COVID-19 wreaks around us. But what if our actions did control the spread of the virus? What if staying at home was doing something real and an expression of our control? What would we think then?

Consider “What if”?

There is a concept in psychology known as counterfactual thinking. Essentially, it is a way of thinking wherein one changes a factual actual event in order to assess the consequences of that change. Basically asking “if not for X, what would have happened?”

For example, what would have been the impact on the spread of disease if the United States government had taken the threat of COVID-19 seriously in January and February and ramped up testing capacity before it was needed? Or what would the U.S. death toll have been today if stay home orders had NOT been issued by so many states last month? The actual answers are impossible to know, but we can speculate to extract insights and meaning. More importantly, the counterfactual changes perspectives.

Remember Isaac Newton

Most of us implicitly expect the world to adhere to Newtonian physics. The same applies to everyday life. For every action we take, we expect a (an equal and opposite) reaction. Cause and effect. We push on a keyboard and letters show up on our screens. We eat lunch and we no longer feel hungry. On and on.

The faster and more tangible the reaction, the easier it is for us to connect it to the action. However, when the reaction is inherently delayed, difficult to observe, or is represented as the absence of something, we tend to get confused. Our grit vanishes. Think eating well to lose weight or practicing meditation.

We listen to our government and stay home. That’s the action. The result, we are told, is less illness and fewer deaths. That’s allegedly the reaction. But how do we know? Most of us can’t see less illness. Most of us aren’t on the healthcare front lines seeing the inundated hospitals slowly coming back to normalcy. Is our action justified if the reaction seems so ephemeral?

Communicating with Psychology on the Mind

Sometimes the most effective form of communication exploits basic human psychology. Using the three lessons from Psych 101 we explored above, here are a few crazy ideas for policymakers, media types, and politicians to consider. These tactics are ambitious and likely unrealistic. But they may help us overcome the vacuum that has pervaded our lives. More importantly, they could help to accelerate the recovery effort by increasing adherence to stay home mandates and further slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Present Life over Death

There are countless models predicting the number of infections and “possible” deaths from COVID-19. Each has a variety of assumptions, weights, and discrete variables. 200,000+ deaths. 60,000+ deaths. On and on. But what about lives saved? What about highlighting the counterfactual if not for social distancing?

As of mid-April, staying home and enacting social distancing policies seem to be working. If you believe the news, we are flattening the curve (hopefully!). So let’s use those same prediction models that drove us into our homes to convey the “projected” number of lives saved on a daily basis as well. If we didn’t stay home in March, how many more would have suffered? Map out the “do nothing” scenario versus the current state. Action-reaction.

This number—the count of lives that have been saved by stay home orders—will be inaccurate. But it would be no less accurate than those forecasted death counts. And instead of reinforcing helplessness, it would help us feel empowered. If it were possible to communicate the impact of practicing social distancing on lives saved or ICU patients reduced, many of us may start to feel something. Maybe even something good.

Put the Front Line in Front

Many media sources are thankfully providing glimpses into life in hospitals, clinics, and other health providers. These clips make us uncomfortable, even a bit queasy. We should demand more of them.

Numbers are abstract – largely devoid of emotion. Images and sounds make the situation real. Biases obfuscate the struggle and the pain. We need to understand the challenges at the front line. Not just today and tomorrow, but over time to understand if and how it is changing.

We can respect patient rights and be exposed to the truth. Go beyond the statistics. Give Americans up-close insight into how our actions (or lack thereof) are having impact. Hearing from politicians and technocrats is good, but it is not enough. Allow us to also take in the unvarnished truth from doctors, nurses, and practitioners themselves. Make the intangible, tangible.

Draw Clearer Correlations

The lack of national leadership and the absence of federal policy has perhaps one benefit. Hundreds of experiments in social distancing are being run across the country. Some jurisdictions have adopted stricter stay home orders than others. Some enacted these policies earlier than others. Report on the results on these experiments.

 Government officials should work with the media to increasingly highlight the relationship between bad practices and increased cases. Repeatedly recant the Mardi Gras story. Similarly, capture and share good practices and improved outcomes.

Collectively, we need to go above and beyond to show that we are in control of our actions and thus, in control of what happens to one another. The cause-and-effect dynamic with the pandemic is hard to discern among all the noise. Let’s amplify the message that we have the ability to exert control over what happens. Mitigating the spread of COVID-19 is within our control. Make the linkages between good behaviors and good outcomes a core part of the broader communications signal.

Wagish Bhartiya is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. He is a Senior Director at REI Systems where he leads the company’s Software-as-a-Service Business Unit. He created and is responsible for leading a team of more than 100 staff focused on applying software technologies to improve how government operates. Wagish leads a broad-based team that includes product development, R&D, project delivery, and customer success across state, local, federal, and international government customers. Wagish is a regular contributor to a number of government-centric publications and has been on numerous government IT-related television programs including The Bridge which airs on WJLA-Channel 7. You can read his posts here.

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