Why changing our behavior is hard during COVID-19.

Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay

Dr. Todd Ward


The spread of COVID-19 rests squarely on our own behavior of distancing, masks wearing, and hand sanitizing.  But we don’t do it as well as we should.  Why?

NPR recently put out a case study of sorts on this issue.  When reading through it, I was struck with its honesty – most of us drop the ball on preventative measures and being honest about it can be difficult.

They discuss the story of Adriana Caplan, a software engineer working at home during the pandemic.  Her story likely resonates with many of you.  At the beginning of the pandemic, she was doing all the right things – staying inside all the time, ordering groceries online, and avoiding friends.

But that all began to change by the time May rolled around.  Adriana, like most of us, started getting fatigued by the lock down, and the associated mental strain from the isolation.  She started spending more time outside of her house – shopping in person, meeting in small groups, and even dating.

Gretchen Chapman, a psychologist, noted in the article that we didn’t really evolve to respond well to abstract statistical threats like COVID-19 infection numbers.  Instead we evolved to respond to things we contact in person, such as loved ones dying or getting infected and going into quarantine.

In behavioral terms we can think of the latter as direct-acting contingencies – consequences that we directly observe or contact.  This is in contrast to rule-governed behavior, which allows us to learn without experiencing bad things (like “don’t touch that you will burn yourself”).  However, rules aren’t always effective, especially when they signal abstract statistics that we haven’t experienced directly ourselves.

And that is the crux of the behavioral challenge for this pandemic.

When fall came around, they noted “her risky behavior was being rewarded” because coming out of isolation meant more time with family and friends.  But then someone in her life became infected.  Suddenly the pandemic was real, and the cycle continued again.

Does her story resonate with you?  Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA is a science writer, social philosopher, behavioral systems analyst, and the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which aims to connect behavioral science to the world in an engaging, non-academic way.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  His publications follow a theme of behavioral systems analysis, organizational performance, theory & philosophy, and language & cognition.  He has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward can be reached at [email protected]

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  1. Great article! I’d love to know more about this subject. I had to go look up studies, of course, because I wanted to see what they said about the effects of social isolation. Did you know that one study shows social isolation can make the symptoms of COVID-19 worse if one does end up getting it? Check out this article for more info: https://www.psychiatryadvisor.com/home/topics/general-psychiatry/costs-of-social-isolation-loneliness-covid19/

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