No man is an island — that proverbial expression rings especially true now, when the health and safety of each individual depends so acutely on the decisions and behaviours of others. In the time of Covid-19, it becomes more apparent than ever that what makes or breaks a community is the result of individual actions.
But even as governments all over the world introduce more travel restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, there are still persistent examples of worrying behaviour. In the earlier days of the pandemic, crowds gathered for festival parades and spring break beach holidays, as if the problem was happening and can only happen elsewhere. Even now, when a large swathe of the world is grappling with the containment of the alarmingly infectious COVID-19, there are still those who continue to flout regulations on avoiding public spaces and mask-wearing.
Such behaviour is not really a mystery — after all, it’s human nature to crave personal freedoms. But it is possible to appeal to the better angels of our nature when it comes to encouraging people to be more socially responsible. The following are some tips on how to do just that, based on the five-factor VINCE model (an acronym for values, image, norms, convenience, enforcement) developed by Professor David Chan, the director of SMU’s Behavioural Sciences Institute.
Our values shape the way we think and behave. For example, if we are raised to regard filial piety as a core value, then we would naturally behave dutifully and responsibly towards our parents.
In the context of COVID-19, Prof Chan advocates that “to build a culture of social responsibility in Singapore, we should develop and reinforce collectivistic values as our shared values”. Initiatives such as the Singapore Kindness Movement’s Overcome As One campaign are trying to do just that.
Belief in collectivistic values would mean we would put group interests before self-interests. So, socially irresponsible decisions such as choosing to attend a gathering when we are not feeling well would not be compatible with these values, since such behaviour would potentially put many others at risk.
Another way to change behaviours is to appeal to one’s image. “It is human to want to have a positive self- and public image,” notes Prof Chan. “Possible self-images and public images are powerful motivators for behaviour changes.”
There were many examples of this type of behaviour change in the business world in the pre-coronavirus era: as climate change became a trending topic among younger consumers, many brands promoted their goods and services by appealing to people’s image of themselves as socially conscious individuals who care for the environment and practise sustainability. In the same vein, if good personal hygiene behaviours reflect the self- and public image of a socially responsible person, chances are that many more people will be washing their hands and wearing masks because these actions are consistent with the positive images of themselves.
Norms are immensely powerful when it comes to shaping behaviour. In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and triggered the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the rest of the world was astounded by news images of Japanese survivors forming orderly queues for food, water and fuel. The lines snaked for miles, but the social norm for collective harmony and public civility held firm.
Once norms are internalised by members of a society, they become self-reinforcing means to regulate behaviours, partly because to flout these social norms would invite judgment from others and partly because such actions become reflexive. “We need to cultivate cleanliness norms so that it is socially expected for everyone to keep public places clean,” and “A good normative principle to promote is that we should personally clean up a public place after using it so that it is as clean or cleaner than just before we used it”, Prof Chan suggests.
Let’s face it: if it was terribly tedious to do something, it’s much harder for people to do it, even if it is the virtuous thing to do. So it makes sense to make virtuous actions not just attractive but as easily accessible as possible. For instance, hawker centre patrons are more likely to return their food trays after eating if the location of the tray station is highly visible and easy to get to.
In the case of COVID-19’s wide ranging impact, there are myriad areas where better design and implementation can spur positive changes. Prof Chan gives some concrete examples. Make hand soap and sanitisers in public toilets and other public facilities more available and visible. Make contact tracing and travel declaration procedures more streamlined and precise. Make it easier for employees to call in sick and follow up with the same doctor. Lean in, and make it easier to be responsible.
Enforcement is about ensuring compliance with rules and regulations. But to do that effectively, coercion per se is not the answer. Rather, there are a series of thoughtful steps that need to be taken, such as creating rules that are practical, and then communicating their rationale clearly. “People must also know that enforcement is applied equally to all without fear or favour, and what the consequences of non-compliance are,” reiterates Prof Chan.