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The Illusion of Covid Control

Oct 5 2020 • 3 min read

Imagine that you’re playing Monopoly. Your opponent’s Mayfair hotel lies just four places away. You juggle the dice in the palm of your hand, knowing that rolling a four will result in immediate bankruptcy. But beyond Mayfair lies safety.

How exactly would you throw the dice? With a timid drop? Or with an emphatic top-spin throw that rips across the board like a tidal wave?

Deep down, we all know that our choice of throwing technique makes no difference to the eventual outcome. But several studies have shown that people tend to launch the dice more aggressively when seeking a higher roll, as if this might influence the uncontrollable randomness that awaits. We can see the same behavioural pattern in many people’s current response and self-exposure to Covid-19, a point we’ll return to later.

Psychologists call this tendency to believe that we can influence chance events ‘the illusion of control’. On the one hand, this inflated sense of agency can give us the confidence we need to embark on new ventures and take certain risks, some of which will ultimately pay off. On the other, it has its downsides.

Gambling behaviour, which generates £14bn per year for the UK industry, provides one such example. In particular, we can think about people’s meticulous selection of ‘lucky numbers’ in national lotteries. In the UK, for example, the number 7 is 25% more likely to be chosen over any other number. And experimental evidence has shown that given the choice, many people would prefer one lottery ticket where they choose the numbers to two computer-generated tickets.

In the context of Covid-19, illusory beliefs about control may help to explain some individuals’ apathetic response to social distancing guidelines. A survey conducted in the US found that this was especially true among younger members of the population, just 52.4% of whom were complying with social distancing. One of the main reasons given for non-compliance was a lack of concern about catching the virus. And that was in March.

A more recent survey conducted by the UK Department of Health and Social Care illustrated the same pattern. Among those alerted by the NHS contact tracing app that they had been in close contact with a confirmed Covid-19 case, just 10.9% reported staying at home or quarantining for the following 14 days. Both examples point to an over-inflated sense of individual control.

The problem is that when you add up all those individual beliefs and actions, they present a monumental challenge for the wider community.

The framing of public communications can make a difference. Given what we know about the illusion of control, encouraging people to wear masks in order to protect themselves is unlikely to be the most effective approach. Indeed, alternative methods such as emphasising people’s civic responsibility to reciprocate the sacrifices of healthcare workers have proved more persuasive. And similar techniques have proved impactful in other domains, such as this 2017 road safety campaign conducted by Transport for NSW in Australia.

It’s important to note the difference between an absence of control and the illusion of control. Clearly, the choices we make as individuals will shape our experience of Covid-19. But we are prone to underestimate the role of the dice in deciding our fortunes.

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