The problem with pandemic shaming

The COVID-19 crisis has caused all of us to rethink the risks and benefits of many activities. Is it okay to go for a walk or to the park? Do groceries need to be sanitized? As states reopen their economies, the questions get tougher. Is it okay to go to a restaurant? To send the kids back to daycare? Is protesting against injustice worth the risk even if it means being in a crowd?

And as we make these difficult decisions, we face an additional pressure: pandemic shaming, the tendency to judge people who make different choices than we would during the COVID-19 crisis. Pandemic shaming is understandable in a scary situation where one’s actions can bring harm to others. But the coming months will be easier if we instead adopt a presumption of decency, which holds that others — like us — are decent, imperfect human beings each doing their best.

Black Lives Matter protesters enter a rally against restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Phoenix, Arizona, U.S., July 4, 2020. REUTERS/Cheney Orr

Examples of pandemic shaming abound. Spring break partiers drew fire in March, and a video clip from a newly-reopened Las Vegas casino sparked outrage on Twitter. Shame has also been directed at people who take or support COVID-19 precautions like mask wearing and stricter measures to contain new outbreaks.

Some principles from economics and psychology can help us
understand why other people may reach a different conclusion about COVID-19
risk, why it’s tempting to judge them when they do, and why it’s worth trying
to curb that instinct.

First, people generally share the same values, but they weigh them differently. During the early stages of the pandemic, public dialogue was understandably focused largely on safety — specifically, minimizing COVID-19 risk. If safety is the only value that matters during the pandemic, then taking any risks that could cause us to get the virus would indeed be unthinkable. But upon reflection — particularly as the months go by — most of us can recognize that there are other important values, such as economic security and human connection. Is some risk acceptable if it allows us to attend a father’s funeral, or re-open some schools? The answers depend on how you weigh the important values at stake.

Second, people tend to assume the worst when they see others make choices they disagree with, without fully appreciating the circumstances. Classic psychological studies find that all of us have the capacity to electroshock a stranger, torment a prisoner, or fail to help a man who has fallen on the street. Yet we harshly judge others who do these things, imagining that we would never do the same. More recent studies find that we tend to underappreciate the advantages we have had and discount the disadvantages faced by others. And in a recent poll of Massachusetts residents, 69 percent of respondents felt that they were “very strict” about social distancing, but only 12 percent felt that others were equally strict.

Third, we are often wrong in our assessments — and worse still, we don’t know how wrong we are. Think about how wrong experts have been already about a range of COVID-19 issues. Experts initially told us not to wear masks unless we are ill; now they recommend that everyone wear masks. The projections of widely-used epidemiological models have ended up being way off. If even experts can get it this wrong, what about the rest of us? This suggests that, before judging others, it is worth asking ourselves how sure we are that our own assessment is right.

Director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci takes off his face mask prior testifying before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on the Trump Administration’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, U.S. June 23, 2020. Kevin Dietsch/Pool via REUTERS

We could even extend the presumption of decency to policy makers, who are also making difficult choices under a huge amount of uncertainty. For example, Sweden’s widely criticized decision to leave schools open may have been partly driven by the value of gender equality. Women bear a disproportionate share of childcare responsibilities, and school closures could have long-term effects on their labor market outcomes. School closures could also harm children from low-income families and hinder the detection of child abuse.

To be clear, COVID-19 is a serious threat. To date, more almost 140,000 Americans have died from it — far more than even the worst flu seasons. And during a pandemic, policy interventions are certainly justified to curb the harm that one person’s choices impose on others. But research — including a study by one of us — shows that shaming may not be an effective way to change behavior and may backfire when applied to those who are already skeptical.

So, the next time you see someone reach a different conclusion about COVID-19 risk, it may be worth getting to know them a little better. Research suggests that open-minded conversation can be surprisingly powerful. You may both learn that you share the same values, even if you weigh them differently. You may both learn how your situations differ. And someone may even change their mind.

Ben Ho is an associate professor of behavioral economics at Vassar College.