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The science behind our impatience with social distancing

There’s a reason this feels hard: This pandemic has created the hardest kind of decision-making context for humans.

The science behind our impatience with social distancing
[Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images]

It may feel like a million years ago, but social distancing measures really only started in earnest in early or mid-March, depending on where you live. Just two months later, mandatory social-distancing guidelines are being lifted, stores are being reopened, and many people are starting to engage more with others.

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All of this is happening in a context in which the number of new daily infections in the United States has remained flat. We are still averaging over 20,000 newly identified cases a day.

So why are we as a society so desperate to return to some sense of normalcy, despite the ongoing crisis? Does this reflect a uniquely modern impatience or a short attention span induced by the 24-hour news cycle?

Actually, it indicates that this pandemic has created the hardest kind of decision-making context for humans.

Research on motivation makes a distinction between two motivational systems. The approach system engages when people pursue a goal to achieve a desirable outcome. The avoidance system engages when people pursue a goal to avert some threat or calamity.

Most of the decisions we make in life involve choosing the best out of a set of reasonably good options. These are called approach-approach conflicts. If you are trying to decide which entrée to get at a wonderful restaurant, then you experience a little difficulty as you look back and forth between mouth-watering options, but after you decide, the choice isn’t hard to live with, because you have ended up with a desirable option.

Some decisions involve the choice of a course of action to take in the face of a threat. These choices engage avoidance motivation, but once a choice has been made, you can focus on executing that decision. For instance, if you get laid off from your event-planning job, then you might decide to go into a different industry that feels more secure, such as carpentry. You could have made a different choice, such as going back to school to get a degree, but once you switch careers, it’s about executing that plan as well as possible.

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The situation we find ourselves in now with the COVID-19 pandemic is different. It involves two distinct threats that pull against each other. Courses of action that avoid one threat make the other worse—and vice versa. These conflicts are the hardest for people to deal with and are called avoidance-avoidance conflicts.

The reason they are so difficult is that both the choice process and the aftermath are hard. It is emotionally taxing to have to choose a path between threats. Social distancing decreases the risk of illness and death for many people at the cost of harming the economy, which puts people out, hammers businesses, and creates the potential for homelessness, hunger, and suffering for significant numbers of people. Allowing people to engage in normal work and trade keeps the economy rolling, but increases the threat of illness and death.

In March, the U.S. chose a path of social distancing. That helped to minimize the number of people who got sick, the likelihood that we would overwhelm the healthcare system, and ultimately the number of deaths. However, in that same period, over 30 million people lost their jobs, and large sectors of the economy have ground to a halt. Individuals are struggling, and even people who are still lucky enough to be working are faced with the threat that their jobs will go away.

The problem with avoidance-avoidance conflicts is that when you focus on the looming threat, the potential catastrophe you’re currently trying to avoid seems less important. As a result, there is a constant force pushing to change tactics to avoid the other threat. And that will not abate until one or the other threats is eliminated.

That means that we are not being impatient. Instead, we are stuck in the hardest kind of decision setting there is. There really are two looming threats out there. And there is no single action that will enable us to avoid both at the same time. As a result, until there is a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19, we will continue to bounce between the desire to social distance and the need to get back to work. Even if we choose one course of action and stick with it, there will be a constant pull to consider changing tactics.

So let’s not shame people by calling them impatient. All of us are having the normal human reaction to the worst kind of situation.

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