In-Depth: The psychology of COVID-19 non-compliance

Why some people choose not to follow safety guidelines
Posted at 6:08 AM, Feb 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-03 10:03:04-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - New numbers from a study by the University of Southern California show most Americans follow basic safety guidelines for COVID-19. But a large number still don't.

According to the Understanding Coronavirus in America Study, 96% of Americans wash their hands regularly, and 90% wear a mask.

The same study shows that 63% of Americans have close contact with people outside of their household. Of those, 51% don't wear a mask while doing so.

Further, 41% visited other households, 15% have gathered in groups of more than 10 people, and 9% have gone to a bar or restaurant. In most of those cases, only around half of the people have worn masks.

"In many ways, this pandemic is a perfect storm of factors that lead to poor decision making," says University of San Diego Associate Professor of Psychology Rachel Blaser.

She's studied the science behind why people make the decisions they do. When it comes to safety guidelines in a Pandemic, Blaser says a lot of it comes down to what psychologists call a "Cost/Benefit Analysis."

"We're weighing, unconsciously, usually, but sometimes consciously the pros and cons of that choice," Blaser says.

What makes it more complicated is that the disease often makes those pros and cons challenging to determine.

"Maybe in 2 or 3 weeks you might have symptoms, maybe in 2 or 3 years there might be side effects that we don't even know yet what they are," Blaser explains. "That's just not how our brains work."

In addition to the Cost/Benefit analysis of each choice, Blaser says the constant changes in the rules make it difficult for many people to follow them consistently.

"We've been getting these mixed messages for so long," she says. "For very valid reasons, the science has changed, or the regulations are changing. It's not necessarily that anyone's being hypocritical or making mistakes, but of course, regulations are going to change as we have more cases."

Blaser says if we want to change people's behaviors and get the rest of the country to follow safety guidelines, we need to make the rules easier to understand. They should also be presented as mandates rather than guidelines, as people are more likely to follow a mandate.

And, she says we need to emphasize the positive sides of following the rules instead of criticizing people who don't.

"Castigating people, or using aggressive messages, or stigmatizing them for not using a mask is not going to be an effective approach," Blaser. "We want to invite people to cooperate and do their part to help out. Not accuse them of being selfish or being careless or not helping to take care of others."