A version of this will be published soon in the NATIONAL PSYCHOLOGIST>
There appear to be few behavioral specialists involved in public-health contact tracing and other methods to control the pandemic who understand the basic Skinnerian principles of shaping behavioral change through consequences, either reinforcements or punishments.
However psychologists are uniquely positioned to advise politicians on this, particularly on how reinforcement increases desired behaviors and how punishment is ineffective on changing undesirable behaviors.
Punishment doesn't always work for many reasons. First, it doesn't work when one is being punished for species-specific needs, such as those sketched out by Maslow in his pyramid of motivations. The most basic is the first step: Oxygen, food, clean water. The second is a safe home base.
Millions of people have lost their jobs in the past quarter, threatening their ability to have a home. Prior to that, 10% of New York City public school children were homeless. Now those numbers have racheted up. Starvation and want loom upon our nation.
Even for those who still have homes, the need for love and belongingness (Step 3) may be missing. Zoom parties do not offer skin-to-skin contact or offer treatment for problems of ordinary life.
Punishing for such losses is puritanism at its worst, because meting out punishment only serves to alienate people further from the punishers. It foments rebellion when normal wants, desires and needs are expressed and then shamed or punished.
People who have always led comfortable lives are now finding that the most basic aspects of their lives — safe sanitation and secure access to food -- cannot be accessed. Anxiety and depression rise in a world where there are increased expectations, reduced means and no guidance or resources.
Second, punishing people with anger doesn’t work. Angry leaders just model anger; they don’t offer solutions. Anger is just as contagious as COVID-19 and just as destructive to healthy human functioning. Anger leads to punishments, where everyone acts as a punisher, doing such things as posting photographs on social media showing violations of social distancing and masks. Others tag them, as if they were hurling rotten produce at someone in a bygone stockade.
Worse, some people intentionally violate social distancing to punish others, such as one woman who pepper sprayed another who stood too close to her.
Other punishments, such as fining those who refuse to cooperate with contact tracing, or who refuse to wear masks, are sure to backfire. Expect lawsuits by the ACLU. In Israel, few people pay such fines. There are lawsuits pending there. Furthermore, expect people to claim they are being confused with someone else. For example, my own name, Sharon Kahn, is shared with several women in Manhattan
One other Sharon Kahn and I shop at various on-line sites and I at times receive e-mails confirming her purchases. She probably receives mine at times. Another Sharon Kahn and I once shared a gynecologist. But only once, because at my first visit, the gynecologist said: “Well, the last time you were here, it was for . . . ” I told him I had never been there. And after that visit, I never was again.
Anger is energizing but absent of action it only increases the death toll. Take away the rhetoric and you hear nothing but the sound of websites crashing. Instead of punishment and anger, politicians need to immediately provide for the biological and safety needs of the population. Punishment, in order to be effective, needs to be consistent. Not applied solely to lower castes and ignored with others.
The actions that should be stressed should be based on harm reduction.
In England, for example, social distancing has been reduced to one meter (about one yard). Small changes such as this toward a larger goal are easier to reinforce and inspire a feeling of success. Furthermore, in the medical literature, English journals noted that social distancing is rarely successful—hand washing and improved hygiene do better.
And instead of shaming people who refuse to wear masks in public places, free masks could be offered at the entrance. Smiling greeters could reinforce this with words such as, “You’re never fully dressed without your mask.”
Harm-reduction measures are easier to put into action. Rewards can be easily offered. People want to feel like the things they do make a difference. Reward people for the smallest steps to public safety
People become depressed and anxious when they feel helpless and hopeless. Giving people a small, yet doable task increases morale. Cooperation increases when people feel what they do is valued by society.
Instead of scary, angry politicians sucking all the air out of their daily, televised news conferences, have them encourage literacy. Imagine public officials reading a chapter from a Harry Potter book each day, a story about a boy who each year goes to school where someone tries to kill him. Still, for him, it is better than staying at home.
Further imagine a daily contest where schoolchildren send in illustrations to be projected on the screen during the story. Winners would receive monetary rewards. Even very young children would feel a sense of increased agency and feel a part of their society. Furthermore, personal protective equipment (PPE) can be incorporated into elementary school curriculums using songs and physical movements. This is routinely done in Israel. It normalizes new routines and models activity.
Another suggestion is to find informal community leaders and ask how they can incentivize people to cooperate with the contact tracing. Have role models such as Beyonce, Jay-Z, Spike Lee or Al Sharpton make public service announcements.
For adults, there could be jingle-writing contests for public service announcements. Musicians could be encouraged to write an original song about conquering the virus, using positive, major chords and allaying anxieties with knowledge.
Obstacles to masks, for example, also can be conquered. One major issue is breathing. Masks require different breathing techniques; otherwise anxious people easily succumb to panic attacks, which they associate with masks, thus causing less compliance. Public service announcements can also demonstrate proper breathing techniques with easy to remember jingles.
People are discouraged when websites for unemployment repeatedly crash. But there is no need to go to a website. Instead, states can pay people pandemic relief funds. Every adult and child should be offered a stipend. Child stipends are a routine part of many European and Asian societies. This would be easily accomplished because all school-age children are registered for school and adults can be easily be found via state ID’s, voter registration records, driving licenses, etc.
So, to gain compliance with new norms, be ashamed to shame. Offer monetary compensation for a minimum of three months, begin a child-stipend program, offer free PPE at all venues where mask wearing is mandatory and reinforce via small steps each incremental activity toward the goal of a safer society through high caste models and tangential social and monetary rewards.