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Susan Joslyn is cited in this Slate article about using psychology to take social distancing seriously.

How to Use Psychology to Convince People to Take Social Distancing Seriously

Straight-up berating people with facts about COVID-19 won’t work. Taking advantage of social norms might.


As COVID-19 cases rapidly spread across the U.S., we’ve experienced rapid social disruption. Schools, libraries, and businesses are closed; bands’ tours and sports leagues are on hiatus; experts recommend we wash our hands frequently and, most drastically, minimize contact with others through social distancing.

Many people are following these guidelines by working from home if they can, canceling trips, and putting up with chapped hands, but others view these precautions as an overreaction. Some have even defiantly run toward the exact things experts warn against, taking advantage of lower travel fares, or insisting on dancing it out at an enormous senior community. Friends tell me about their relatives or colleagues who are still going on vacation or packing into crowded bars and wonder how they can be so callous. Surely they’ve heard the news—why is it that some folks are hunkered down for the long run while others are living life as usual?...

... Beyond encouraging and reinforcing precautions, it might be wise to consider how our psychology can present challenges for future outbreaks, given that scientists predict that COVID-19 might be with us for months or years to come. In a best-case scenario, the precautions we’re taking will work and slow down the virus’s spread—which many might interpret as evidence that the virus wasn’t so bad after all, and result in less trust in taking necessary precautions during the next public health crisis. Susan Joslyn, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, studies people’s responses to weather forecasting and finds that “false alarms” in major weather events, like tornado warnings or hurricane evacuations, result in a loss of trust. If you evacuate five times and nothing happens, you might believe the forecasts mean nothing; if you socially distance for two months and the virus never reaches your town, you might believe it was a false alarm, too, even if that social distancing is what kept the virus from taking hold. The same holds true with focusing on the worst-case scenario.

Joslyn described a tactic that can build trust in weather predictions, which might also help during future outbreaks: including uncertainty in predictions. When it comes to weather, people know that exact precision is impossible, so they find forecasts that give a range more trustworthy—for instance, a forecast with a daytime high between 40 and 47 is more trustworthy than one that simply says the high will be 47. “They know you can’t really predict that, so they think you’re kind of overstating the case,” says Joslyn. While the predictions for coronavirus are much more complicated, estimates of a range of risks could help build public trust, no matter what the outcome.

Read the entire article here.