If your loved one, best friend or roommate is one of the few who has yet to get on board with coronavirus public-health recommendations — even in the midst of what the U.S. surgeon general warned could be the “hardest and the saddest week of most Americans’ lives” — there are still a few strategies at your disposal.
Around 92% of Americans report they’ve been engaging in social-distancing measures, including canceling plans, opting not to travel, and staying home from school, work and other activities, according to a poll conducted in late March by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-care think tank. Eighty-two percent report sheltering in place, staying home unless they need essential services like food or medical care.
The shares of Americans taking these measures to slow the spread of coronavirus rose substantially from mid-March, according to Kaiser’s polling, tracking with mass closures and a shift to remote work and schooling across the country.
But what if someone in your life is part of the small sliver of the population that still isn’t taking the threat of the pandemic seriously?
“ ‘People are reluctant to believe in things they don’t see.’ ”
“For a lot of us, the virus is intangible and not very concrete,” Emma Frances Bloomfield, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas who studies scientific skepticism and misinformation, told MarketWatch. “We hear about statistics; we hear media reports. But for a lot of people who are social-distancing or are in communities that aren’t as hard hit … I think people are reluctant to believe in things they don’t see.”
Convincing someone else to change their behavior can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Here are some strategies that might help:
Change the messenger
The source of the message is just as important as the message itself, said Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley who studies false beliefs and learning. She suggested finding a different messenger to drive home the point — ideally someone this person respects, views as an authority figure or identifies with as a peer.
For example, a better strategy for getting through to your dad might be to enlist your aunt, who’s close to him and also understands the science of COVID-19. If there are people in your loved one’s circle who share your concern for their well-being and wield some influence, encourage them to respectfully raise the issue, Kidd said. It might also help to find the viewpoint being espoused by a celebrity, political figure or public commentator this person respects, she added.
“ ‘Anecdotes are much more convincing than statistics. If you have a really salient anecdote, people can latch onto that in a way that a table of numbers won’t reach them.’ ”
Choose anecdotes over statistics
The facts and figures of coronavirus are plenty alarming, but you shouldn’t expect that “just showing them the statistics is going to magically motivate them to take the appropriate behavior,” Gretchen Chapman, a Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor who studies decision making and health psychology, told MarketWatch.
“Anecdotes are much more convincing than statistics,” she said. “If you have a really salient anecdote, people can latch onto that in a way that a table of numbers won’t reach them.”
Invoking an “identifiable victim” can also help get your point across, Chapman said, referring to the social-science idea that people are willing to provide greater aid to identified victims than to those who are statistical or unidentified. She pointed to the recent case of Jason Hargrove, a Detroit bus driver who complained about a passenger’s unshielded coughing and then died from COVID-19 complications days later. His case provides a “gripping example,” Chapman said, of “a public servant doing his job, getting people around the city … and a thoughtless passenger causing his demise.”
Highlight responsible actions others are taking
People have a natural tendency to want to do what other people are doing, Chapman said. She highlighted prior research on hotels’ attempts to get guests to reuse their towels, which found that tapping into social norms — that is, informing people that a majority of their fellow guests had opted to reuse towels — was more effective than messages focused on environmental protection or cooperation.
An easy visual way to convey coronavirus-related social norms might be pointing out the abundance of people wearing face masks in public, Chapman suggested.
“ Trade news articles and information with this person. This serves the purpose of showing you care about their perspective, sussing out the sources of the misinformation they seem to trust, and giving you a foothold to provide more credible information sources. ”
Appeal to a sense of collective responsibility
Many lawmakers and public-health officials have taken this approach, urging young and healthy people to take precautions so they don’t transmit the illness to elderly or immunodeficient people, who are more likely to suffer more severe cases of COVID-19.
“If somebody feels like the choice that they are making only affects themselves, they may feel more entitled to do whatever they want,” Kidd said. “If instead the impact is placed on communities, friends [and] family, they may be more likely to reconsider.”
Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, said the recognition that cigarette smoking could also endanger others through secondhand exposure had helped shift the public conversation around smoking.
“In a way, that’s the conversation that we’re having right now and need to continue to have — that if you go out during this crisis … you’re not just putting yourself at risk,” she said. “If people understood that a little more acutely, maybe that would help make the difference.”
While it’s always best to strive for a kind and cooperative approach, Oreskes added, “sometimes you have to be harsh with people.” If you’re dealing with a very stubborn person who refuses to take social-distancing measures seriously, you could remind them “in no uncertain terms” that they are endangering the safety of their spouse, partner and/or children, she suggested.
Trade information sources
Bloomfield suggested trading news articles and information with this person. This exercise can help show that you care about their perspective, suss out the sources of misinformation they seem to trust, and give you a foothold to provide more credible information sources, she said.
“ ‘It’s always easier to change our own thinking and behavior than it is to change other people.’ ”
Appeal to their core values
“It’s hard to convince someone to change their behavior if they think they’re going against their core identity in doing that,” Chapman said.
Try framing public-health measures in a way that relates to something this person cares deeply about: If the economy is of particular concern to them, she suggested, you could point out that cities that implemented stronger social-distancing policies during the 1918 influenza pandemic saw greater economic gains after the pandemic ended. If family is an important part of their life, talk about the impact their actions could have on their household.
This person might be more amenable to those approaches, Chapman said, than to information coming from someone they see as “an elitist academic public-health person.”
Keep your eye on the prize
Be strategic about which battles you choose to fight, Kidd said. Stay focused on the highest-priority items at hand, and don’t turn this into a personal conversation that rehashes every disagreement you’ve had over the years.
“Maybe you pick handwashing or sheltering in place specifically,” she said, “and you don’t try to convince them all at once about the efficacy of vaccinations in full — because that’s not the top priority right now.”
Follow conflict-resolution best practices
Ask the person if you can speak with them about a concern you have, make sure you find a convenient time when they can give you their full attention, and talk privately rather than in a group setting, said Joshua Morganstein, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Committee on the Psychiatric Dimensions of Disaster.
Use “I” statements rather than “you” statements to avoid putting them on the defensive. “‘I’m concerned with your safety’ is different from ‘You’re not supposed to be going there,’” he said. “Telling someone, ‘I care about you and I’m worried about your safety’ allows the focus to be on yourself and your own feelings, and less of an exclusive focus on the other person’s behaviors.”
Set a good example
“People should also not underestimate the importance of actions speaking louder than words,” Morganstein said. “Sometimes the best way to encourage someone to participate in an activity … is for other people to quietly go about the business of doing that activity.” This person in turn, will likely grow aware that they’re the odd one out.
Control your own behavior — even if you can’t influence theirs
“A way of preserving the mental and physical energy that we have is to do a self-check and decide: Is this something that’s worth engaging someone over? And what control or influence, if any, am I going to have in this situation?” Morganstein said. “It’s always easier to change our own thinking and behavior than it is to change other people.”
If you’re cohabitating with someone who refuses to abide by public-health recommendations, do what’s within your control to keep yourself safe, Morganstein said — whether that’s disinfecting surfaces, wearing a mask indoors or maintaining physical space from the person.
“It would be sad if you had to do it because your roommate or your brother is an idiot, but life can be like that,” Oreskes added. “We’re living in a suboptimal situation — we’re all just trying to do the best that we can.”