How to Get the Spreaders to Start Practicing Social Distancing

Motivating people to change

Ontario just released the statistics on the number of deaths forecast from Covid-19. Quebec will follow in just a few days. People are wondering if this will ensure 100% compliance with social distancing over the next few months. The stats are grim, even if everyone were to comply, so you’d think that this would be enough to get the small group of hold-outs to finally join with the program. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

The reason is that people don’t change their behavior out of fear. The old ads on TV that tried to get people to quit smoking by showing gruesome pictures of diseased lungs clearly didn’t work. When it comes to human motivation, fear won’t make people change. So what will make people change their behavior and stop spreading Covid-19?

People don’t change out of fear

People change for two reasons: either for purely selfish motivations or for altruistic ones. Often, it comes from a combination of both. People change their behaviour when they see that it will benefit them directly; when they see that making a change will help others, or when changing what they do will help both themselves and other people.

Selfish people won’t follow public health recommendations to avoid causing themselves harm but they might if they see a direct benefit for themselves. They certainly won’t be motivated by compassion for others, so our public institutions fail when they try that much harder to get these people to care. With this group, we have to appeal to their base self-interest.

If we make it clear to them that they could improve their personal situation through social distancing because it would shorten the course of the pandemic and minimize their financial costs, then they might start to stay home.

With selfish people, appeal to their self-interest

If we make it clear to them that they could also make things worse for them by continuing to socialize because this would ultimately lengthen the course of the pandemic and make their financial situation even worse, they might then choose to comply with the pub health guidelines. They need to see a direct link, though, between their actions and the consequences they’ll experience.

In general, people with a strong sense of altruism will be compliant with the public health guidelines right from the start. They don’t want to cause harm to anyone else, so they learn what they’re supposed to do and they do it. If staying home also prevents them from getting sick, they see it as a win-win.

Some basically altruistic people, however, maybe haven’t been as compliant as they could have, either because they didn’t understand the real impact of their actions, or because they were in denial about the seriousness of the pandemic. When this group hears the statistics, though, it still might get them to change their behaviour, but maybe not.

There are four reasons why people aren’t engaging in social distancing right now:

1. They just don’t care. As I mentioned above, these are the antisocial people, the narcissists who lack empathy and compassion, and these individuals have no remorse for their selfish or hurtful behavior. These people will only respond to a public health initiative if they see that they’ll benefit directly by complying and that they’ll lose out, big time, if they don’t.

2. They just don’t get it. These individuals need to have things broken down very simply so that they understand why it’s essential to stay home and stop socializing. For the altruistic people in this group, once we clarify the situation to them, they’re more than likely to get on board. Unfortunately, there is a sub-group of those who just don’t get it and just don’t care. It’s almost impossible to get through to these individuals because they won’t make the effort to understand.

3. They’re in denial. Denial is a psychological defense mechanism that arises when people are anxious and overwhelmed. This is coping strategy is tough to break because some people are so anxious that they can’t bear to see the truth. The best way to work with this group is to inject regular doses of straightforward information that will hopefully slip in under their defenses.

4. They’re caught up in ideology. Whether it’s political fanaticism or some other type of belief system that prevents these people from seeing the truth, their rigid way of thinking makes it extremely difficult for our public institutions to get through to these people. Fanaticism defies all logic, reason and even self-interest. I’m reminded of the Jonestown massacre, when all of Jim Jones’ followers drank the poisoned Koolaid and died for their leader. Ideologues are so attached to their beliefs that they’d rather risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones than change their thinking. This group is a danger to the public health.

What you can do

If you know anyone who is still defying the social distancing rules, ask yourself which group you think they belong to. You can help your selfish friend or relative to see that they stand to gain a lot more from social distancing than from whatever fun they’re having right now by continuing to socialize. You can show them how they stand to lose a lot more in the long run by not changing their behaviour than the minor inconvenience right now of not being able to socialize.

You can explain to your clueless friend or family member why their behaviour really does matter and show them the stats that make it clear how the death toll by the end of April will be in the hundreds or in the tens of thousands, all depending on their actions today.

You gently encourage the person you know who’s in denial to face the truth about the pandemic. You can tell them that the longer they stay in denial, the more they and others will suffer. You can let them know that down the road, things could be a lot worse for them and their loved ones, so they’d better face the facts today.

And if you know someone who’s caught up in ideology that makes them ignore the rules, I’d advise you to stay far away from them because it’s likely that their irrational, irresponsible actions will be putting themselves and those around them at a significantly increased risk of falling ill.

Please sign up here for my free monthly wellness newsletter. April 6, 2020 is my second special issue on Coping with Covid.

And tune in to my new YouTube video series on Coping With Covid.



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Marcia Sirota

Marcia Sirota


Writer, speaker, MD, and author of the Short & Sweet Guides to Life book series