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Bright Lines and Covid-19

Sep 14 2020 • 3 min read

One of most important lessons in helping people to comply with rules is to keep it simple. And one of the most useful ways of thinking about this is to establish what psychologists call ‘bright lines’.

Bright lines are rules with very clear boundaries. They are effective precisely because they remove ambiguity. You know instantly whether you have stepped across a bright line. And this reduces the cognitive effort required to apply that rule.

This not only makes it easier for you to comply. It also makes it easier for other people to know whether you are complying with a rule. Which brings in social pressure that might not otherwise have been present.

Some of the best appliers of bright line thinking are religious communities. Religions often have rules about when to rest, or what is acceptable to eat, which almost always set these kinds of simple boundaries. ‘Do not work on the Sabbath’, for example, is a good example of a bright line rule established by many religious groups. It is very easy to understand, to follow, and for other people within the community to help enforce.

Think about how much that contrasts with the rules around the Working Time Directive. And in particular the stipulation not to work for more than 48 hours on average over a seventeen week period. This is clearly not a bright line. It takes a lot of cognitive effort to comply with a rule of this kind, and it’s not obvious to an outsider whether you are or are not complying.

In March 2020, we set out with Finsbury how important it was to apply bright lines thinking to Covid communications. At the time we pointed out that messages like ‘stay at home’ represented a bright line that was simple to understand, and unambiguous relative to the complex set of rules that preceded it.

But since then, many people have admitted that they have found it hard to keep up with the changing nature of the rules, and in particular the nuances that permit certain activities, but prohibit others. Until recently, for example, two households of any size could meet up; but more than two households could not meet up, unless they were outside, and then only in groups of up to six (see the excellent Health Foundation policy tracker for how these rules emerged).

From Monday 14th, all this complexity will be replaced by the ‘rule of 6’ in England, under which no one can meet socially in groups of more than six people. This rule is much more straightforward to understand and comply with. If you are in a group of 7 having a picnic in a park, in other words, you will know with no ambiguity that you have transgressed this rule. You will also likely feel a social pressure upon you to comply that was absent when the rules were more complex and ambiguous.

So regardless of what you think about the new ‘rule of 6’, it represents a step forward in the Government’s communication efforts. And will be much simpler for all of us to comply with.

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