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Q & A: Why you may feel physical distancing fatigue, and how to fight it

For weeks, advice from public health officials has been the same. Stay home if possible, and if you must go outside, keep your distance from others. 

Still, the degree to which people actually follow that advice can vary. 

“Cooperation is very weather-dependent,”  said Gloria MacNeil, the city’s director of bylaw enforcement. “Definitely [on] the nicer days we’re seeing a higher volume of people out.”

In the last week, four charges were laid across the region against those violating the province’s emergency orders. So far, there have been 10 such charges laid. 

According to the region’s chief administrative officer, one charge involved a Kitchener nail salon, another was laid at a private residence in Waterloo and two involved gatherings of more than five people in public spaces in Cambridge.

For more on why some people may be becoming less careful over time, CBC Kitchener-Waterloo spoke with Anne Wilson, a professor of social psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: The risk of COVID-19 spreading in the community is still there, but it seems that more people are getting together in groups. From a social psychology perspective, why do you think that’s happening?

Anne Wilson: It could be that we notice disobedience more when people are out and about in public. Still, I’d be willing to believe the tendency for people to bend the rules is higher when the weather is nice.

One of the reasons is that people have a tendency to base their moral standards on a shifting set of rules.

Anne Wilson, a professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, says people tend to make decisions based on a “shifting set of rules” that favours a certain outcome. (Submitted by Wilfrid Laurier University)

There’s a process called motivated reasoning, and the idea is that people often feel like they’re weighing the pros and cons of a decision, and thinking through all of the reasons they might have for doing something. But often, if they’re motivated by a particular desire, they tend to tip the scales in favour of one conclusion rather than another.

So, on a really sunny, warm day when people are really interested in getting out, they might feel like they’re reasoning through all of the evidence and coming to the conclusion that, “Well, this one time it’s okay to do this,” but they may actually be going through a relatively biased process to allow them to get to the conclusion they’re hoping to.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: We’re eight weeks into the pandemic, so none of this is new to people. Do you think people may be behaving differently because this is no longer a fresh threat? 

Anne Wilson: People tend to be responsive to the degree to which they feel something is a big risk. So if they’re experiencing a lot of fear and they see the negative consequences as risky, then they’re more likely to follow the rules pretty carefully.

As time has gone on though, generally people don’t maintain high levels of fear. Even if the situation has not changed much, people tend to adapt to whatever the new normal is and they get used to hearing the statistics. Over time, especially for people who have not vividly encountered the consequences, the things that were motivating them at the beginning will tend to disappear over time. They’ll be more likely to find reasons why they can bend the rules a little bit

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: As you say, the threat of coronavirus can seem very abstract, especially if someone hasn’t been personally affected by it. How can we make the risk seem real, without getting overwhelmed by fear?

Anne Wilson: There’s a lot of research that shows people are less motivated to act when they see a statistic than they are if they’re exposed to even a single, vivid example. Stories from front-line workers or health-care workers, some stories of people who have been through cases of the virus, and so on, may be important to keep in people’s consciousness so that there’s enough fear to motivate them to stay on track.

It’s also important to recognize that fear should always be paired with messages of self-efficacy. If you want to scare people, you should also give them information about how they can avoid those negative outcomes.

CBC Kitchener-Waterloo: What message do you have for people who may be tempted to bend the rules?

Anne Wilson: There are a lot of legitimate reasons why people care about and need social connection. It’s really good for their wellbeing, and their both mental health and physical health. They may also want to connect with others out of care and concern for other people.

The more we can do to make sure that people have available to them safe forms of connection [the better], so that it’s not that the only alternative to breaking the rules is isolation.

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