Call it a bout of myopia or a lack of imagination, but it did not occur to me two months ago — watching the lockdown of some 57 million people in Hubei — that we would all soon find ourselves homebound, too.
The world has ceased its normal operation. Even as a profound anxiety over an uncertain future prevails, the greatest contribution most of us can make is simply to stay home, wash our hands, be kind to each other online. A small and selfless sliver of the population — nurses and doctors, grocers and restaurateurs, factory workers and delivery drivers — quietly keeps society open and moving. For the rest of us, life is on something like a pause.
Self-isolation, the watchword of the day, has quickly moved from recommendation to requirement. Almost all affected countries, or localities therein, have instituted some form of mandatory social distancing. But we did not end up here overnight. While Italy moved into lockdown on the 9th of March in an effort to contain the virus’s rapid spread, here in the UK the government opted instead to issue “very strong advice” for people to avoid crowded public venues. The next day, life in my London neighborhood kept moving: the tube and buses ran, the pubs’ pints poured. It would take ten more days for the government to formally call for closures.
The UK’s range of responses has illustrated both the potential contributions, and the crucial limitations, of behavioral science in policy-making. I’ve highlighted three main lessons therefrom on how to best use behavioral science in crafting public policy:
#1: You can only nudge so far
Nudges — the popular term for measures that steer people towards a desired outcome without limiting their choices — are not the right tools for wholesale changes.
While recognizing the importance of social distancing, the UK kept a laissez-faire manner in its initial response, seemingly telling its citizens: here’s what you should do, but it’s up to you. In line with behavioral economics’ founding principles of libertarian paternalism  — or so-called ‘regulation for conservatives’  — the government eschewed heavy-handed mandates, hoping instead to nudge the public toward its desired outcome of social distancing.
A similar strategy of suggested, but not enforced, isolation has characterized much of the US response as well. Yet — as reflected in scenes from still-crowded restaurants and beaches — simply suggesting people stay home does not always work. Part of the problem in the US and the UK seems to be the overall inconsistency in messaging. For example, Canada has also been slow to enact outright bans on movement, but has maintained a strong and clear message (‘go home and stay home’) throughout. In order to harness the considerable power nudges do have, we must clearly and consistently articulate our desired outcome. When done properly, such policies can provide an important middle ground between request and requirement.
Yet — even with a clear point — it is too difficult to nudge an entire population to fundamentally change their daily behavior. By way of example, in Washington state, which has one of the country’s worst outbreaks, initial pleas for people to shelter in place were deemed ineffective, and a formal ban on social gathering (backed by fines and criminal penalties) was necessary to keep people at home. Since then, a number of US states and nearly all European countries have instituted enforceable limitations on their citizens’ movements.
Such a response is, by any metric of policy intervention, extraordinary. Indeed, a government-enforced lockdown is “likely the last step” democratic states can take. And of course, as with any sweeping use of government power to limit citizens’ rights, there has been criticism of these restrictions.
Yet, at present, the best public health information we have tells us that drastic measures of social isolation are necessary to suppress the virus’s spread. It should be left to public health experts and epidemiologists, not policymakers (or behavioral scientists), to debate the accuracy of these analyses.
The point is, if such a radical change in behavior is the stated goal of governments, they must shove, not nudge, their citizens into compliance.
#2: Check, then share, your evidence base
More broadly, the UK’s strategy apparently rested in part on fear of behavioral fatigue — or the idea that people can only change their behavior for so long, and will eventually revert to the norm. If there was a limited window in which self-isolation policies could work, they surmised, better to save it for when it would be most crucially needed, as the spread approached its inflection point.
Yet, in response to this policy, more than 600 UK-based behavioral scientists penned an open letter to the government, urging it to share the evidence on which its approach was based, or else to scrap it altogether. Whilst there is indeed some evidence of media fatigue  in the uptake of preventative behaviors against influenza, uptake is also known to be correlated with perceptions of risk. Thus, given the increased risk of this outbreak relative to the normal flu, it is debatable how well such studies apply to the present moment. As the letter’s authors put it, it seems likely that people’s behaviors would correlate more directly with how serious they believe the situation to be — so a message of “carrying on” could be counterproductive.