Deconfinement: Please Curb Your Enthusiasm

We’ve all seen the photos of crowds cheek-by-jowl at a club, partying. What was bound to happen, happened. This week, the media reported on a teen party that blew out of control, south of Québec City. About sixty kids partied, then left, then infected their families and the businesses where they work. The result is a whole community condemned to relive the nightmare of quarantine.

It would be easy to blame this on teenage self-centeredness and selfish disregard for others, but that would be easy and also inaccurate. Truth is, we are all like them, more or less. We all share a common trait, the Optimism Bias. Behavioural science has long documented this phenomenon. Optimism bias is part of a collection of human cognitive shortcuts (biases) we use to make the myriad quick decisions that make up our daily lives.

This particular shortcut is very common. In its extreme version, it explains the serial entrepreneur. In it’s more mundane but pernicious variety, it is the feeling that the afflictions that befall others, won’t happen to us. The easiest way to explain it, is that we tend to focus on the present rather than the future. We prioritize the readily imaginable over the statistical and the direct over the indirect. “I’m in shape, I eat well, I never get sick. I’ll be fine.” I have heard that one a few times lately. How about you?

For community leaders, countering the Optimism Bias is a tough challenge. Outside of coercion, the best way to reach out to the public is through communications, both traditional and social media. The problem is that the Optimism Bias is hardwired into our psyche. Shifting our thinking is difficult but, happily, it can be done.

Research on this issue, including some published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) website, June 29th of this year, identifies something called “The Immediate Victim Effect”, as a possible way to impact the Optimism Bias. Essentially, we tend to respond more urgently and aggressively to a situation, if it affects someone close to us like a family member, a friend, a neighbour three blocks down or even, someone in the same demographic.

Which brings me back to the teen party in Saint-Chrysostome. The young lady who organized the party immediately went public about her mistake. I wholeheartedly commend her for this. This is the kind of opportunity the authorities and their communication teams could leverage, to reach out to young people. If she and her parents agree, she could publicly recount her story as a cautionary tale. We all identify with our peeps and immediate-victim-effect willing, I’ll bet that a significant number of her cohorts will be moved by her story.

While we are at it, why not do the same for other demographics? Every age group has been impacted by the coronavirus and each of these demographics has a personality, athlete, community leader, business person, you name it, who have either been directly or indirectly affected by this pandemic. They have powerful and engaging stories to tell that could help people take time to reflect on the consequences of their actions. And what about the social media creature known as the “influencer”? News items have shown these selfie gurus posting their newly deconfined partying ways. What if they decided to post pictures of themselves practicing social sanitary measures? Betcha whoever breaks that ground first, will get a lot of attention.

Beating the Optimism Bias takes a split second; the time to pause, to think about the consequences of our actions. When we take this pause, we tend to go into “second thought” mode. Personal stories are powerful tools. Behavioural science tells us they work.