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Why Asking People To Change Their Behavior During The Pandemic Is So Hard

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The soaring number of coronavirus cases in this country underlines a reality, not everybody is taking the safety measures that would keep cases down. Some governors have been reluctant to impose too many safety rules, trusting citizens to act responsibly on their own. But whatever the rules, keeping yourself safe is hard. WHYY's Nina Feldman reports on the psychological challenge.

NINA FELDMAN, BYLINE: She's embarrassed to admit it, but there were moments over the summer when Adriana Caplan (ph) almost forgot about the pandemic. At first, she took it really seriously. She had all her groceries delivered, worked her software engineering job from home and didn't really leave the house. But by the end of May, she started getting restless.

ADRIANA CAPLAN: I'm not good at just sitting at home. Like, I felt trapped.

FELDMAN: Caplan started inching her way out of the house. She began shopping at the corner store in her Philly neighborhood at off hours. Then she started hanging out with her neighbors again, first with masks and then without. She went back into work more often. She started dating. And everything seemed fine.

CAPLAN: Nothing was happening to me. I wasn't hearing anybody close to me having it. The longer it went on, the more distant it felt.

FELDMAN: Asking people to act as if something is dangerous when they don't see the danger for themselves is a tall order. Caplan wasn't seeing images of bodies piling up at morgues or hearing stories of ventilators in short supply.

GRETCHEN CHAPMAN: For millions of years, we learned what was risky through our own personal experience.

FELDMAN: This is Gretchen Chapman, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon.

CHAPMAN: Now we're supposed to learn about risk by looking at public health department websites to see how the cases are going up. Our cognitive system is just not set up to respond to that input for risks.

FELDMAN: Chapman says it's natural to loosen up a little when the impact of the pandemic is not right up in your face. When that happens, it's the government's job to get people to act in a way that benefits the greater good. To do that, she says, leaders have to make rules. They can't put all the burden on individuals like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently suggested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW CUOMO: If you socially distanced and you wore a mask and you were smart, none of this would be a problem. It's all self-imposed. It's all self-imposed. If you didn't eat the cheesecake, you wouldn't have a weight problem.

FELDMAN: It makes sense why governors like Cuomo wish they could rely on human behavior to stop the spread of the virus. They want to avoid imposing unpopular rules and lockdowns, everyone does. But, Chapman says, that's not an entirely fair ask.

CHAPMAN: We don't say, like, taxes would really help the federal government and community services. We think it should be up to individuals to donate taxes to the government, because if they do, it'll be so much better. That would not work. People would not do that.

FELDMAN: As summer turned to fall, Adriana Caplan's risky behavior was being rewarded. She got to see her family. Dating led to a relationship. Then she had a scare. A colleague she'd spent time with came to work after being exposed to the virus. Caplan had to go into quarantine. Suddenly, she was flooded with guilt about all the ways she could've exposed someone during her carefree summer.

CAPLAN: While I was doing it, I didn't feel like it was wrong. But looking back at it, I do regret it.

FELDMAN: Now Caplan's buckling down again. She turned down a few invitations to fall weddings and canceled holiday plans. But she's actually glad she had this personal experience to jolt her back to reality and remind her that the virus is still out there. It had started to feel like someone else's problem.

For NPR News, I'm Nina Feldman in Philadelphia.

INSKEEP: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WHYY and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.