Governments around the world have recommended or mandated various behaviors to help slow the spread of COVID-19. These include staying at home, wearing face masks, and practicing social distancing.

Still, individuals disregard these recommendations and ignore explicit rules for wearing face masks. In the US, UK and Australia, crowds have gathered to protest lockdowns.

All of this begs the question: why do people fail to obey the rules that protect not only their own health, but the health of their community and nation as well? And how can policymakers and public health officials craft better messages to drive adoption?

How morals guide our decisions

In my latest research, I looked at how people perceive the three recommended behaviors as “right” or “wrong”. I based my research on the moral basis theory, which states that people judge the “rightness” or “falsehood” of behavior based on five different moral concerns, or “principles”.

The first is whether an action shows that you care; The second is whether an action meets gender equality standards. The third is whether it shows loyalty to the group; the fourth is whether it shows respect for authority; and the last is whether it corresponds to the impulse and the natural way of doing things.

Some basics are relevant to certain behaviors. others not so much. For example, parents who are “anti-Vaxxers” hold this view because they see vaccines as harmful to a child’s natural immunological defenses. While not, vaccines still challenge their perceptions of the natural. Likewise, when it comes to charitable giving, people donate because they see it as a token of their concern – not because they see it as “natural” to do so.

One benefit of investigating which moral basis is relevant to a particular behavior is that it provides a better understanding of how that behavior can be encouraged or discouraged.

For example, policymakers now understand that messages addressed to reluctant parents must help them see how vaccination can actually boost a child’s natural defenses in order to promote immunization for children. However, telling these parents that “it shows that you care for your child” has little effect as the “caring” foundation is less relevant.

Morals and COVID-19

I surveyed 1,033 Americans in the last week of April 2020 and asked them the importance of having any moral foundation for staying home, wearing face masks, and practicing social distancing.

I found that Americans, by and large, associated all three behaviors with the basics of “care” and “equality”. Staying home when you don’t have to go out shows that you care about others – I call that the Caring Foundation. But staying home only helps flatten the curve if everyone does – the equality foundation. Same goes for wearing face masks and social distancing.

But I also found important age differences in two other moral foundations.

Younger adults have felt that staying home and wearing face masks – what I call the Nature Foundation – was contrary to their nature. It would make sense. Younger adults are more likely to crave social interactions, and so staying at home contradicts what they perceive to be natural human behavior.

In the meantime, wearing face masks is not only uncomfortable but also hides your face, which is also contrary to belief in how people are supposed to socialize.

Older adults, on the other hand, believed that all three behaviors were more important to community goals and public health than personal comfort.

Interestingly, the authority foundation did not refer to any of the three behaviors regardless of age.

Political Implications

By understanding what moral foundations are relevant, social marketers, public health officials, and policymakers can design more effective appeals to get people to stay home, wear face masks, and stay a meter away.

For example, because Americans view the actions as evidence that they care, stressing how these behaviors show caring is likely to improve compliance.

To appeal to younger adults who consider staying home and wearing face masks to be a violation of human social nature, messages should point out how these measures can actually make socialization easier.

For example, “If you wear a mask, stay in touch safely.” Common slogans such as “stay together, stay together” are whimsical and a play on words, but they are unlikely to increase acceptance by younger adults as the “communal “Foundation is a less relevant concern for them. These slogans can be more effective for older adults.

If governments and public health officials really want to promote staying home, wearing face masks, and practicing social distancing, they can’t just say, “It’s moral to do this.” You might want to learn to focus on that invoke relevant moral beliefs of the population towards which they are aimed.

The conversation

Eugene Y. Chan, Associate Professor at Purdue University

This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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