Israeli Researcher Finds a Clever Way to Enforce Social Distancing

In face of the spread of the coronavirus, governments around the world are tightening lockdown measures, along with punishments for citizens who break the new rules. 

In China, where the virus first erupted, it appears that the isolation measures are bearing fruit and the epidemic is coming to a halt; the curfew is gradually being lifted in certain parts of the country and people are cautiously returning to routine.

– Bibi’s impossible victory and Israel’s corona blind spots

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

But what is the most effective way of enforcing social distancing? How can citizens be motivated to cooperate with the tough policy and stay at home for many days or weeks? Research by a behavioral economics expert indicates that the main problem with getting the public to cooperate is the phenomenon of “it won’t happen to me” – that is, within a short time, a considerable part of the population will develop indifference to the risks and their compliance with the isolation instructions will decrease.

The research of Prof. Ido Erev, of the industrial engineering and management department at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, also suggests a possible solution to the problem – something he calls “friendly enforcement.” He says this method has proven itself in previous studies and has succeeded in “causing factory workers in Israel to observe safety procedures as strictly as Japanese workers.”

A local police officer checks on people at the Highway exit for Molfetta, southern Italy. ALESSANDRO GAROFALO/ REUTERS

Psychological economics studies identify two opposing responses that characterize people facing an opportunity or a risk that has a low likelihood of occurring. The first kind of response – the more familiar one – is increased sensitivity to a risk. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this response triggers behavior motivated by panic, like emptying supermarket shelves, or the leadership’s overreaction to that panic and the implementation of severe measures that will do excessive damage to the economy.

A considerable chunk of the research in behavioral economics, including the classic studies by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, is focused on this oversensitivity. According to the research, it can explain why an individual can buy both car insurance and a lottery ticket – that is, at the same time overestimating the probability that a rare event will occur, be it the theft of a car or picking the winning numbers.

The second reaction to risk is rare, says Erev: underestimation. In the case of the pandemic, this tendency can lead to indifference to the risk – and to a more rapid spread of the virus as a result. This, in turn, leads to a rapid rise in the number of people infected and the collapse of the health system.