Behavioral side of Covid-19

Last week, to the dismay of many netizens from Asia, social media was littered with pictures of university students partying during spring break in Florida beaches, defying social distancing recommendations from the federal government and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and completely disregarding the potential risk of the coronavirus disease 2010 (Covid-19) pandemic. Just a few days after that gathering, at least five students from the University of Tampa tested positive for Covid-19.

On March 13, images from Welsh band Stereophonics’ performances in Manchester and in Cardiff, United Kingdom, showed tens of thousands in attendance, amid the increasing number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in that country. To date, nearly 2,000 people in the UK have tested positive for Covid-19, with 60 deaths recorded.

In the Philippines last week, residents flocked to the Las Piñas City Hall for food packs, again ignoring the community quarantine and social distancing directives in Luzon. We saw this same crowding in other cities, some supermarkets and slum areas.

On the night of March 25, the Makati Medical Center denounced the “irresponsible and reckless action” of Sen. Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel 3rd, who later tested positive for Covid 19, for accompanying his pregnant wife to the hospital.

Even United States President “Trump shakes hands with Florida fans as he suggests new coronavirus shouldn’t be treated any differently than the flu,” according to a report by Business Insider, showily defying health authorities’ advice to cease handshaking.

Why, despite all the broken-record-like inundation of messages in mainstream and social media on the urgent need to social distance and self-quarantine, do people from all walks of life still crowd together, ignore expert warnings and defy directives from authorities?

Behavioral scientists point to a flaw in the human behavior, called “psychological reactance.”

A concept pioneered by American psychologist Jack Brehm in 1966, it refers to the idea that when individual freedoms are “reduced or threatened with reduction,” people tend to be “motivationally aroused to regain” those freedoms. That is, when you tell me what to do, a part of me feels compelled to do the opposite.

As an example, every parent can relate to this concept and “knows that when you tell a child to do something, they seem almost biologically predisposed to doing the exact opposite thing,” as reported by “Don’t run by the pool!” you shout.

“Maybe I should try that…” they think. “In short, when someone tells you how to behave, you feel your liberty threatened and ‘lash out’ not only by ignoring the advice but by leaning into behavior that goes against what is being suggested.”

This is further aggravated by the social-media fake-news fatigue of many. People tend to question the authenticity of news we read in social media, such that we ignore the authentic dire warnings about the deadly virus.

So, how do we stop the spread of Covid-19 and quell it until it disappears? The answer is draconian measures from authorities and governments. “The intensity of the policy response was associated with greater reductions in mortality,” said Levine and McKnight, who studied how the 1918 flu pandemic was stopped after killing millions. “Our results indicate that the duration of social distancing measures is the strongest predictor of overall mortality. Every additional day that such measures were in place is associated with reduced influenza-related mortality by 1 death per 100,000 population (or 1,000 people per day at the US population size of around 100 million at the time).”

Draconian measures — lockdown, sealing borders, strict quarantine and social distancing — have helped China win the war against Covid-19. “These draconian measures seem to have worked to bring down the cases in a very short period of time in China,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Business Insider.

Other countries in Europe are likewise following these draconian measures to curb the virus’ spread.

Now, you may have read that Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan were able to “flatten the curve” without resorting to these extreme measures. But I would argue that the psychological maturity of a country’s citizens is a major factor. We, as a country in general, display the behavioral anomaly of ignoring, if not, resisting directives from authorities and government. From not following traffic rules, to widespread corruption, to utter disregard of quarantine orders, we as a people need to be disciplined in these times of urgent global and national malaise.

But disciplining a citizenry to change their behavior also requires compassion toward those in need. That’s why provisions for food and other necessities for the poor should be provided by the government during this time, because a hungry stomach knows no rules.


The author is chief executive officer of Hungry Workhorse Consulting, a digital and culture transformation consulting firm. He is the chairman of the ICT Committee of the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines. He is the country representative of the Institute of Change and Transformation Professionals Asia and fellow at the US-based Institute for Digital Transformation. He teaches strategic management in the MBA Program of De La Salle University. The author may be emailed at