Why are people ignoring social distancing advice?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In recent days, government officials and public health experts have made dire warnings about the catastrophic risk the coronavirus poses to the American public. Those messages have also included instructions on preventing the spread of the virus — most crucially avoiding contact with other people through social distancing.

Despite these warnings and the flood of news coverage explaining the risks, many people have chosen to ignore safety advisories. Bars in several cities were packed with customers over St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Beaches on the coasts teem with spring break revelers. Social media has featured countless posts from frustrated people whose loved ones have refused to cancel their social schedule.

Polling shows that less than half of Americans see the virus as “a real threat,” and large numbers are still going about their normal routine. Older people are less likely to be worried than younger generations, some polls suggest, even though the risk of death is substantially higher for people over 65.

Why there’s debate

There are a variety of explanations offered for why so much of the public isn’t taking the outbreak seriously. Many have pointed to President Trump, who for weeks downplayed the risk of a crisis before recently pivoting to a more urgent message. This same pattern took place in conservative media, specifically on Fox News. Polling shows conservatives have been less worried about the virus than liberals.

The lack of available tests has suppressed the number of known cases in the country, which may be causing some people to think the virus is less pervasive than it really is. The motivation for ignoring social distancing may vary between generations. Younger people may have taken warnings about the dangers to the elderly as reason to believe they’re safe. Baby boomers, on the other hand, may not consider themselves to be “old” because they are generally healthier and more active at their ages than previous generations.

Others say resistance to social distancing is part of human nature. Reports of crises from other countries don’t reflect what most people see in their day-to-day lives, which can make the threat of the virus seem abstract and exaggerated. It can be difficult for people to grasp the exponential growth models that chart the expected increase in cases. Some psychologists say going out could be a form of denial by people who are afraid of accepting a scary reality they hear about in the news. Finally, some have argued that American identity, which is grounded in rugged individualism and distrust of authority, may be motivating people to defy orders to stay at home.

What’s next

An increasing number of statewide and local governments are taking social distancing decisions out of the hands of individuals by shutting down “nonessential” business and enacting strict restrictions when people can go outdoors. Trump said placing similar restrictions on the entire country is “something we talk about,” but it’s unlikely such a policy would be put into place.


The lack of testing makes the problem seem less severe than it is

“There are very few reported cases in most places, so maybe people [think], ‘This is still not here yet.’ If you haven’t been following the fact that we haven’t been testing [very much], you might not realize how deceiving the reported cases are.” — Human behavior expert Baruch Fischhoff to Atlantic

Trump’s denial of the threat gave some a false sense of safety

“Trump has made it clear he sees this pandemic chiefly as a threat to the market and wealthy people’s personal interests (and relatedly, his own political future) — not to the people whose lives it will threaten or claim.” — Adam Gaffney, Guardian

American individualism makes us rebel against restrictions

“Americans are good at following the rules, and Americans are extremely charitable, but still, deep down, there is that widespread individualism, mixed with that frequent distrust of science when it contradicts your own good common sense, that stiff-upper-lip, mind-over-matter business we inherited from the Brits.” — Julia Ioffe, GQ

Americans see health as an individual concern, rather than a community one

“American politicians long ago shifted the burden of safeguarding the public from the government to individuals. Call it personal responsibility, call it deficit reduction, call it whatever you want; the consequences are the same no matter which label we use. The absence of any seriously developed health-care infrastructure abandons people to muddle through on their own.” — Sarah Jones, New York

Defying social distancing may be a form of denial

“By virtue of not following all these prescriptions, it’s easy to believe that everything is normal and you’re going to be fine. If you start practicing social distancing — which we really need to call physical distancing so people better understand the concept — it highlights the fact that, oh my gosh, this is a dangerous time.” — Psychologist Regan Gurung to USA Today

Baby boomers don’t see themselves as old

“We are living in a time of older adults feeling good, even invincible, and they are certainly healthier than their own parents were at this age. But that’s why we may be heading into disaster. Because Boomers don’t think of themselves as ‘older adults.’ They don’t understand that just because they feel a certain way that doesn’t mean that they won’t be the most affected by Covid-19.” — Molly Jong-Fast, Vogue

Young people are being selfish because they don’t think they’re at risk

“Social distancing requires sacrifice, which might be why so many young adults my age refuse to heed public health warnings. It's time we take responsibility for our generation and the generations above us. What we do now will not just affect us; it will affect the rest of the country.” — Kaylee McGhee, Washington Examiner

Conservative news misled the public about the dangers

“Distorted realities and discarded facts are now such a part of everyday life that the way they shape events like impeachment, a mass shooting or a presidential address often goes unmentioned. But when partisan news meets a pandemic, the information silos where people shelter themselves can become not just deluded but also dangerous.” — Jeremy W. Peters and Michael M. Grynbaum, New York Times

The speed at which outbreaks spread can be hard to grasp

“When something dangerous is growing exponentially, everything looks fine until it doesn’t.” — Megan McArdle, Washington Post

It takes a lot to persuade people to break from their comfortable routines

“We humans are highly sensitive to social norms, and it’s confusing when they suddenly change. It’s hard to accept these sudden recommended changes to our routines, and the open-endedness is horrifying — or even worse, the prospect that this could be the new normal, at least until a vaccine is developed.” — Jane C. Hu, Slate

The relative safety of modern life makes true crisis seem unimaginable

“In our good fortune, we may have lost touch with just how wrong the world can go. It’s easy to forget that most of human history has been characterized more by hunger, disease, privation, suffering and war than by our comparative comfort.” — John M. Crisp, Tribune News Service

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