Why People are Tired of Social Distancing and Hand-washing
Sun, April 18, 2021

Why People are Tired of Social Distancing and Hand-washing


Most people do not underestimate the danger posed by the Covid-19 pandemic but some grew tired avoiding other humans, sanitizing doorknobs, wearing face masks, disinfecting food and packages, and frequently washing their hands. Will this mean that adherence to these pandemic protective behaviors could wane over time?

The intangible benefits

Behavioral scientists George Loewenstein and Gretchen Chapman from Carnegie Mellon University explain that the problem is that people cannot “see” the significance of their actions or they don’t recognize how important they are. The benefits are intangible. It is remarkable that efforts to promote safety and hygiene measures have been successful because these are protective measures that people are most particularly bad at taking before the pandemic hits.

Frequently washing hands and maintaining physical distances require constant vigilance and are inconvenient. “The costs of these behaviors are immediate but the benefits are delayed,” they wrote.

Statista shares, based on Robert A.J. Signer’s calculations, that 75% less contact of one infected person would result in 2.5 new cases in 30 days compared to 406 new cases with no changes to the social behavior of one infected person.



Neglect of probability

However, an equally important and more subtle reason remains that the benefits are intangible. They can’t see, feel, taste, or touch the benefits of, for instance, disinfecting their doorknob. Another is the neglect of probability. It is a cognitive bias that causes people to disregard the probability when making a decision when they are uncertain. A team of researchers from the University of Chicago previously asked a group of people how much they would pay to prevent a 1% chance of a short, painful but not dangerous electric shock. Then, another group of people was asked how much they would pay to avoid a 99% chance of getting the same electric shock.

The result, which was published by Bloomberg, shows a massive difference between a 1% chance and a 99% chance but people did not consider the difference. This is the reason why people tend to be insensitive when it comes to small probability events, including the chance of contracting Covid-19.

Loewenstein and Chapman added that because of such cognitive bias, some people are not “eager” to engage in social distancing and hand-washing unless the risk will be fully eliminated. For instance, another study found that a vaccine that is believed to “entirely” eliminate a 10% risk for a disease is more appealing to people than one that can reduce the risk from 20 to 10%.

Similar research concluded that people were less drawn to a vaccine that was 70% effective in preventing all known cases of disease compared to a vaccine that is 100% effective in preventing 70% of known cases of the disease.

Even if people will follow all preventive measures, including wearing face masks, washing hands, disinfecting grocery deliveries, and staying at home, they cannot eliminate but only reduce the chance of catching the coronavirus.

No useful feedback about the effects of actions

The behavioral scientist added that another reason why people get tired of following the preventive measures is that there is no useful feedback about the effects of their actions. The coronavirus is invisible so they have no idea whether they did have them before but have gotten rid of them after washing their hands. Furthermore, there is no feedback about how the action changed the probability of them getting infected.

“People are just fatigued. They are tired of staying inside,” Harvard Medical School’s physician Abrar Karan told the Bloomberg. New Axios-Ipsos study finds that almost half of Americans now know someone who has tested positive of Covid-19 and almost one in five know someone who has died because of it.



Two-thirds of Americans report wearing a face mask “at all times” when they leave their home. However, among the 46% of Americans who visited their family or friends in the last week of July, only 21% report wearing a mask at all times. Respondents view the following activities as risky due to the pandemic: dining in at a restaurant (70%), visiting friends and family (68%), and sending kids to school (66%). The survey period was from May 15 to June 1.

A large majority of parents (71%) also say that sending their kids to school in the fall is a moderate or large risk. Only 22% consider it a small risk and 8% believe there’s no risk to send their children to school in the fall.

The public likewise does not see a Covid-19 vaccine as the immediate solution. A clear majority of the respondents consider first-generation vaccines as risky. Sixty-one percent of three in five US respondents view taking the first-generation coronavirus vaccine as soon as it’s available as a large or moderate risk. Until safety has been shown, the public remains wary of the vaccine.

Of the 49% of Americans who received stimulus money, many may not be putting it directly back into their local economy, the survey finds. Some 38% said they put their money into savings, 26% said they paid off their debts, 25% purchased food and basic household needs, 14% used it to pay rent or mortgage, 5% donated it or gave it someone who needed it more, and 18% have not spent it but plan to.

Loewenstein and Chapman pointed out that if all the sacrifices that people are making pay off based on having lower infection rates, the public will still consider those low rates as evidence that their sacrifices were not needed in the first place. It is a pattern observed among anti-vaxxers or those who oppose vaccines. They claim that low rates of diseases that are already vaccinated against show that vaccine was not necessary.



Invisible impact

The behavioral scientists state that it is difficult to imagine being sick when one is healthy or has been sick in the past. Consider those patients who were hospitalized because of a heart attack. One year after their hospitalization, nearly 50% of the patients prescribed to take statins stopped taking them. The same dismal rate of adherence to medications is observed among those diagnosed with acute diabetes.

Covid-19 has made people’s life more complicated and their work more stressful. Many may be tired of being understanding and responsible but it doesn’t mean they won’t follow the preventive measures or at least, for now.