With what some are calling the “triple epidemic” of COVID-19, the flu virus, and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, on the rise in many parts of the country, the holiday season will once again bring some tough decisions this year:
Should you go to that Thanksgiving gathering even though you woke up with a sniffle? Send your kid to that school play even though he coughed last night? Wearing a mask to the grocery store after finding out your friend has COVID-19?
New research from the University of Colorado Boulder, published in the journal PNAS Nexusshows that when people simply take a moment to think about the consequences of their behavior, they tend to choose options that pose less risk to other people.
The international study of 13,000 people also found that almost universally, people value the health and well-being of others.
“Most people tend to behave in ways that care about the well-being of others, but often in the moment they behave more selfishly than they want to,” said senior author Leif Van Boven, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at CU Boulder. “Our lab is trying to come up with ways to help people better align their behavior in the moment with their values.”
For the study, conducted in the midst of the pandemic, Van Boven and colleagues in London, Austria, Singapore, Israel, Italy, and Sweden presented participants in those countries and the United States with three hypothetical scenarios:
In one, they owned a small restaurant and were considering reducing capacity when the virus broke out.
In another, they were due to meet 50 friends for a birthday party after months in isolation, but their government has warned that gatherings of 10 or more are unwise because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
In a third case, they were considering canceling a planned Thanksgiving celebration with 30 family members, including the elderly and young children.
Before making a decision, half of the subjects were asked to pause and practice a technique called “structured reflection,” developed in Van Boven’s lab to help people be more mindful of their own values.
They asked themselves two questions that contrasted how their decision would affect them personally and public health. For example, in the Thanksgiving scenario, they asked:
“On a scale of 1 to 7, how much (on a scale of 1 to 7) should your decision be influenced by the possibility of the spread of COVID-19 among family members?” And “How much should your decision be influenced by your enjoyment of spending time with family members?”
In all countries, cultures, ages, and political parties, almost everyone has placed at least equal weight on the well-being of others.
“It’s encouraging,” Van Boven said. “Our research and others suggest that it is a universal human tendency for people to believe that they should care about how their behavior affects other people.”
Those in the structured reasoning group were significantly more likely to say they would cancel Thanksgiving, and in other scenarios they were more likely to make the mistake of minimizing public health risks.
Van Boven said such methods could be applied to a variety of public health goals, in which personal gain at the time overshadows broader public health considerations.
“People know they shouldn’t be texting while driving, that it’s better for the planet if they take the bus instead of driving, that they should eat more vegetables and exercise, but that’s just the first step,” Wang said. Bowen.
While health campaigns often focus on changing people’s minds, Van Boven’s team takes a different approach: helping people be better and do what they already know they should do.
As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, such personal responsibility will become increasingly important, he said.
“I would encourage everyone to get into the habit of asking themselves when they are going to host any large social event: What risk might you be putting on other people and is the benefit worth it?”