A UC Irvine professor is calling public health officials Friday, saying they have failed to properly motivate people to practice the social distancing necessary to slow the spread of coronavirus, and offered tips to improve messaging.
UC Irvine professor of emergency medicine Sean Young claims that mixed messaging from public health officials has failed to click with everyone from sunbathing beachgoers to merchants who are risking their business licenses to protesters who are demanding a reopening of the economy.
“People typically don’t do common behaviors because they’re not motivated to do them, not incentivized to do them, or they don’t know how to do them, or it’s too difficult or no one else is doing them, so why should they do them?” Young told City News Service. “These are the same reasons why people are out at the beaches (when they are closed).”
Young, a psychologist and expert on digital behavior, wrote a book titled, “Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life – for Good.”
He says that one way public health officials can make a difference in convincing people to wear a mask while shopping or refraining from opening a nonessential business before they get permission is to use peer pressure.
“When people see beaches packed with others and congregating without a mask, they learn the opposite,” Young said. “This can backfire and people can go out more and not wear a mask.”
Young added that public health officials should also “make it easy for people to adhere to the recommendations. If it’s easy for people to do, they’ll keep doing it.”
He also pointed to “inconsistent messages from all levels of government” as a cause for some of the mutinies against social distancing.
“The messages have changed over time and they’ve been inconsistent, starting with the president in February saying we’ve got this under control, this is not going to be a risk and then calling it a national emergency, which catches people off guard and really causes chaos, fear and panic,” Young said.
“It’s not just the president,” he added. “The surgeon general told people to stop buying masks, then the CDC was saying if you’re sick, you should have a mask.”
He pointed out that signs closing Orange County beaches earlier this week said, “by order of the governor,” which he said sent an underlying message of, “We’re not going to take the blame for it, this is the governor.”
Young said, “There is a lack of consistency and rollout of a message, and even a lack of awareness from local government and what the state and federal government are going to do — just waiting to see what they will do.”
That “makes people not trust government,” he said.
Young also said there’s also been a failure to target message, for instance, shaming youths for not wearing a mask, a tactic he said will backfire for that age group.
“If you try to shame many younger people, they’re going to be likely to be defiant and do the opposite,” he said. “You’ve got to tailor things to different populations.”
But public health officials cannot be entirely scapegoated, Young said.
“Individual psychology plays a lot into it” as well, he said. “People are motivated to avoid perceiving risks of things that can harm them, especially if they’re stigmatized.”
He said there is a degree of shame experienced by some people afflicted by COVID-19 because it requires quarantining and can make them feel like lepers.
For protesters, Young believes they “latch” on to the politics to justify not wanting to go along with the difficult tasks of staying at home most of the time.
“Politics get attention and people use political failures to justify their own attitudes, behaviors and needs,” Young said.
Role models can encourage bad behavior, he added.
“If you see leaders walk around a factory without a mask and see people outside ignoring stay-at-home orders, those people become leaders and others think I can do it if that’s what other people are doing,” Young said.
Young encouraged political leaders to “get together and coordinate, at least locally, and get on the same page.”