(Almost) Everyone Is Doing It

April 16, 2020

Photo by Ryan Levi

Experts say widespread social distancing is limiting the spread of the coronavirus, but not everyone is following the rules. What’s the best way to convince everyone to practice social distancing?

Listen to the full episode below or scroll down for the transcript and more information.

Click here for more of our coronavirus coverage.

The Latest: Social Distancing

Surveys show the vast majority of people in the U.S. are practicing social distancing. While doing so can be more difficult for people who have unstable housing or have to leave their homes regularly for work, others appear to be simply ignoring the directives from public health and government officials

Experts say social distancing has been critical to limiting the spread of the coronavirus and that continuing those practices will still be necessary for months and maybe even years. Lack of social distancing, on the other hand, could lead to increased transmission of the virus.

The Evidence: The Best Way to Tell People to Social Distance

We asked Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and an expert on decision making, for her top evidence-based tips for public officials trying to get people to social distance. She noted that since the coronavirus is an unprecedented situation, the previous evidence is only a best guess, and public officials should work with experts to test what kind of messaging works best in this moment.

Everyone is doing it

Milkman says there's evidence that we're more likely to do something if we think everyone else is already doing it. "The more we can give people visuals of empty streets and convey how compliant people are being in general, the more effective our messaging is going to be," she says.

Do it for others

Research has shown that people are more likely to do something if they think it will help others rather than if it's in their own self-interest. "People are actually, especially in times of crisis, very motivated to help others. It's actually a wonderful thing about the human condition," Milkman says.

People, not statistics

While statistics are important to show the scale of the pandemic, research shows people are more likely to be swayed when confronted with specific people who are being affected. "We want to highlight the human stories and the human cost because people respond to faces, to human tragedy. That's what motivates action," Milkman says.

The Evidence: The Best Person to Tell People to Social Distance

Effective messaging isn’t just about how you say it, but also who says it. We asked Michael Sanders, former chief scientist of the United Kingdom’s Behavioral Insights Team, what the evidence says about who is the best person to convince people to social distance. Like Milkman, he notes that this evidence has not been thoroughly tested in the COVID-19 environment.

Experts, not politicians

Sanders says elected officials are often poor messengers in a crisis because of partisan divides and overall lack of trust in politicians. More effective¹ are people who are not elected and are seen as experts, like Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Local leaders

At the local level, trusted authority figures are the best messengers, according to Sanders. "Somebody who is a senior member of the community, be that somebody who's older, somebody who runs a community center, a religious leader, a very local political leader. Somebody who lots of people know and think fondly of," he says.

Someone like me

Sanders says the ability to relate to a messenger is key. "Somebody who is as like you as possible and who is experiencing the same kinds of challenges as you are or who has done in the past," he says. Similarities in age, race, regional accent and social status can all make someone more relatable and therefore a better messenger.

¹Wittels, A (2019) “Improving responses to government consultations” PhD thesis, University College London

Episode Transcript

Dan Gorenstein: We’ve been hearing the same thing for weeks…

Gayle King, CBS News: Americans are being ordered to practice social distancing to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy: Stay home and stay away from each other.
President Donald Trump: The CDC is advising the use of non medical cloth face covering as an additional voluntary public health measure. 

DG: And just yesterday, a new executive order from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo: If you’re going to get on public transit, you’re going to pass people on the sidewalk, you’re not going to be able to maintain social distancing, you must wear a mask or a color-coordinated bandana cloth.

DG: Today, what’s the best way for governments — and the rest of us — to get people to do their part to stop the spread of the coronavirus?

It’s April 16. From the Annenberg Studio at the University of Pennsylvania, I’m Dan Gorenstein, this is Tradeoffs.

Syon Bhanot and his wife Susie Schwarz felt stuck.

Syon Bhanot: I know that people might react really negatively if you accost them and point your finger in their chest. 

Syon Bhanot, PhD, Assistant Professor of Economics, Swarthmore College (Photo by Kim Spath Photography)

DG: Something happened a few weeks ago that they just couldn’t let go.

Syon and Susie had been out with their dogs. 

SB: Humphrey and Lola, two shih tzus.

DG: It was a sunny early spring day. They were nearing the end of their walk, coming over a hill back toward home.

Susie Schwarz: Suddenly there is this large group of maybe seven to nine children and parents.

SB: Doing some kind of planned exercise session.         

SS: There was one person kind of demonstrating some what looked like yoga poses or gymnastic poses.

SB: Any other time this would be a charming scene, it would be like adorable small town America. 

Susie Schwarz (Photo by Sameer Khan)

DG: But this isn’t any other time. 

We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and Syon and Susie were in a place many of us have probably been lately, watching people put others at risk by not social distancing.

SS: They don’t quite understand that this is not just a precaution, but that it actually potentially saves lives. 

DG: Susie and Syon live in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, a leafy, college town a few miles outside Philadelphia. 

Handsome stone houses line the block. 

Most folks have good paying jobs and can work from home, and most of the neighbors had been practicing good social distancing etiquette — crossing the street when someone else comes their way, that kind of thing.

Seeing all those kids and parents worried Susie and Syon. They worried about the health of the people on the lawn and everyone else in the neighborhood. They wanted to say something, but felt awkward going up to people they didn’t know.  

A few days later they were back out with Humphrey and Lola. Same long walk, same final hill, same group of kids.

SS I was like, “Oh, my God, they’re still doing this!”

DG: Susie felt they needed to say something, but Syon was still skittish about getting into it with the neighbors.

He thought to himself, “Let’s wait a day, give it a little more time.” But he realized that thinking was a trap. 

SS: That’s just a delaying tactic to not have to do something in the short run. So I recognize that a little bit. I recognize that in my own work as well.

DG: His work just happens to be as a behavioral economist who studies — get this — how to get people to do things that have some kind of personal cost but benefit society overall. 

SB: It’s not great to do, but it helps everyone.

DG: Things like giving to charity and social distancing. 

Syon wanted to avoid a silly years-long feud, and he also wanted to maximize the chance his neighbors would cease and desist with the yoga party. 

But based on his academic training, he understood that a confrontation could backfire and make these people double down on their lack of social distancing.

SB: This idea of psychological reactance that when you approach somebody and you tell them that they’re doing something bad, there is a little bit of a human inclination to kind of push back against you.

DG: So he and Susie started planning an evidence-based intervention.

This isn’t just an issue for civic-minded neighbors like Syon and Susie. Across the country, mayors, governors, and health departments are trying to get people to social distance, but the actual messaging itself has taken a back seat to other priorities.

Katy Milkman, PhD, Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Katy Milkman: My sense is that less attention is being paid to the messaging question: How do we compel people to actually follow the orders they are under to social distance?

DG: Katy Milkman is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School where she studies how and why people make decisions.

She told me she’s found a lot of the messaging from political leaders pretty uncompelling.

Lucky for them, she’s got tips, all based on evidence from behavioral science.

Tip 1…

KM: One of them is conveying that this is what everybody else is doing, so the more we can give people visuals of empty streets…

CBC: In California, the notoriously busy highways are nearly empty. The hustle and bustle of New York is at a standstill.

KM: And convey how compliant people are being in general, actually the more effective our messaging.

DG: Tip 2: If you want somebody to strap on a mask or scoot a little farther away, tell ‘em they’re doing it for somebody else.  

KM: People are actually very, very motivated to help others. There’s some great research that was done by Adam Grant and Dave Hoffman, trying to compel people to wash their hands more in hospital restrooms. And they tried different messaging strategies. One was, wash your hands, you’re less likely to get sick if you’re washing your hands. And another message was, hey, wash your hands, you’re less likely to spread germs and make other people sick. And guess what? It was much more effective to tell people to help others by washing their hands than to tell them to help themselves. 

DG: And Tip 3: Focus on people, not statistics.

KM: There’s this great study that was done by Paul Slovic, George Loewenstein and my colleague Deb Small about a decade ago that looked at two different appeals that were made to raise money for children in Africa who didn’t have enough food. And one of the messages described the malnourishment and what a big problem it is and how many children go hungry. And the other just had a picture of a little girl and gave her name and explained that she was at risk of going hungry. And that picture was more than twice as effective as a fundraising tool. And I think that’s a really important thing to keep in mind in the current crisis. When we’re trying to get people to act, we want to highlight the human stories and the human cost.

DG: Katy says while she’s pretty confident that these tips will be effective, political leaders should really be testing these messages to see what works best. 

KM: Even little survey tests that can be done before messages go live would really help because we know our intuitions are often wrong about what’s going to be the most effective. If there’s any message I would want to end with, it’s I hope that leaders will use the scientific method to try to figure out what is the best ad to put in front of people if we want them to wear face masks, to maintain at least 6 feet of distance, to stay in their homes. 

DG: Katy says political leaders have tapped experts to create vaccines and expand testing capacity. For the good of public health, she says, it only makes sense to call on behavioral researchers to help craft the most persuasive social distancing messages. 

One government that has invested in behavioral science is the United Kingdom.

It started the Behavioral Insights Team 10 years ago. This group of scientists has learned through randomized controlled trials that effective messaging is about more than just how you deliver it. It’s also about who is delivering it.

Michael Sanders: Research has been conducted inside governments to see who should be fronting these things, and that generally shows that lower trust individuals, particularly politicians, aren’t terribly effective.

Michael Sanders, PhD, Reader in Public Policy, Policy Institute at King’s College London

DG: Michael Sanders is a behavioral scientist at King’s College London. He used to be the chief scientist of the Behavioral Insights Team.

He says our general lack of trust and partisan feelings about elected officials make them less-than-ideal messengers in a crisis.

MS: Whereas civil servants, public servants who are not politically appointed, not elected, are viewed as being more credible, particularly medical experts or scientific experts.  

Anthony Fauci: This is inconvenient from an economic and a personal standpoint, but we just have to do it.

MS: There’s research which shows that messages which are seeming to come from, in these big crises, from a doctor are much more effective than messages that are coming from a politician.

President Trump: We’re getting much closer to getting our country back to the way it was. We’re going to do it sooner than people think.

DG: That might help explain why Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is seen as much more trustworthy than his boss, President Trump.

Michael says when it comes to the community level, it’s helpful for the message to come from a respected authority figure or at least someone you can relate to.

MS: Somebody who is as like you as possible and who is experiencing the same kinds of challenges as you are or who has done in the past.

SB: OK, so just left my house, walking down the street to drop this letter off.

DG: Back in Swarthmore, Syon and Susie hoped to emphasize their shared experience through an anonymous note dropped off in the cover of night.

SB: Alright, I’m just putting it under the mat, and I’m getting out here.

DG: Given Syon’s expertise as a behavioral scientist, I wanted to know specifically how his training informed what he wrote. 

SB: Oh, wait, hold on, it’s a little bit lengthy.

DG: I asked him to read the letter out loud.

SB: I said, “Dear neighbor, I hope you and your family are doing well in these difficult times. I’m writing today regarding some of the scenes that I and others in the neighborhood have seen outside your residence.”

DG: Syon says research shows focusing on what was best for the community was his best bet of winning over his neighbor.

SB: “Avoid gatherings, keep children from interacting in close proximity with other kids in the neighborhood. In short, I am writing to ask you to do your part and set a good example for our neighborhood. With sincere best wishes, a friendly neighbor.”

DG: Syon says it’s that last line that encapsulated the behavioral science teachings he tried to sprinkle throughout the note. 

SB: Not only not accusatory, “I’m asking you to do your part.” It’s sort of, there’s the collective good here, almost inviting them to do the right thing rather than chastise them for doing the wrong thing.

DG: Syon says if he’s learned anything, it’s that putting himself personally on the line to get someone to change their behavior is a lot harder than it feels from inside the classroom.

SB: There’s a lot of barriers, and I think a lot of them have to do with reputation and fear about how you’re seen by others and how you’re seen by the people around you and what that means for your life and your community. And that is really hard to overcome.

DG: Since dropping off that anonymous note, Syon and Susie happily report no more yoga parties.

It appears their neighbors have joined the vast majority of people in the U.S. taking social distancing seriously.

As these efforts, though, enter a second month, it may get harder for a lot of us to stay inside.

That means it’s gonna be more important than ever that our messaging is as effective as possible. 

Lucky for our political leaders, there’s decades of research from behavioral science to turn to. 

The question is whether they will. 

I’m Dan Gorenstein, this is Tradeoffs.

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Episode Resources

Official Guidelines on Social Distancing:

Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

State Actions to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19 (Kaiser Family Foundation)

Select Research and Analysis on Social Distancing:

Most Americans are practicing social distancing (Drew Altman, Axios/Kaiser Family Foundation, 4/13/2020)

Timing of Community Mitigation and Changes in Reported COVID-19 and Community Mobility ― Four U.S. Metropolitan Areas, February 26–April 1, 2020 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period (Stephen M. Kissler, Christine Tedijanto, Edward Goldstein, Yonatan H. Grad and Marc Lipsitch; Science; 2020)

Standing Too Close. Not Covering Coughs. If Someone Is Violating Social Distancing Rules, What Do You Do? (Katy Steinmetz, TIME, 4/13/2020)

This 3-D Simulation Shows Why Social Distancing Is So Important (Yuliya Parshina-Kottas, Bedel Saget, Karthik Patanjali, Or Fleisher and Gabriel Gianordoli; New York Times; 4/14/2020)

Social distancing works. The earlier the better, California and Washington data show. (Geoffrey A. Fowler, Heather Kelly and Reed Albergotti; Washington Post; 4/1/2020)

Social distancing is controlling Covid-19; now scientists need to figure out which measures are most effective (Sharon Begley, STAT, 4/9/2020)

Episode Credits


Syon Bhanot, PhD, Assistant Professor of Economics, Swarthmore College

Susanne Schwarz

Katy Milkman, PhD, Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

Michael Sanders, PhD, Reader in Public Policy, Policy Institute at King’s College London

Music composed by Ty Citerman, with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions.

This episode was reported, produced and mixed by Ryan Levi.

Additional thanks to:

Piyush Tantia, Anthony Barrows, Rachel Rosenberg, Alison Buttenheim, and the Tradeoffs Advisory Board…

…and our stellar staff!