Isolation fatigue: How we can learn to stop worrying and love physical distancing

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. BC’s restart plan remained in phase one, and the potential crowds promised by the impending cocktail of Mother’s Day, Victoria Day long weekend and Vancouver’s sunny spring weather loomed in the distance.

While for the most part, British Columbians left generous space between themselves and other beachgoers, there were a few exceptions. With the risk of contracting COVID-19 still prevalent, why is it that some people go out of their way to ignore physical distancing protocols?

The short answer is that humans have cognitive biases. Cognitive biases can be described as mental shortcuts people make in an effort to interpret complex environments around them and can sometimes lead to errors in judgements and decision making.

Reactance bias, the tendency for people to do the opposite of what they’re told for fear of infringements on their freedoms, explains some people’s unwillingness to self-isolate. The bias is the same reasoning behind why some underage people drink immediately after being told not to. Ignoring physical distancing, argues Dr. Eric Cadesky, clinical associate professor at the UBC Faculty of Medicine, is how people maintain their sense of independence and freedom.

“Reactance bias shows our general distrust in authority and the inherent fear that comes along with it,” said Cadesky. “People worry that if one freedom is restricted, like through social distancing, that others may be as well.”

The longer answer is that maintaining high levels of anxiety is difficult. Over time, the fear of COVID-19 becomes normalized as the novelty of isolation fades. Personal experience — either knowing someone who is ill or at high risk — acts as brutal reinforcement for physical distancing.

But without a direct connection to the virus, the pandemic can feel distant. Conversely, cabin fever and the boredom of isolation are very real experiences.

“Being social creatures, we have a certain tolerance for isolation and a need for it,” said Dr. Lawrence Frank, a professor in sustainable transport and public health at UBC.

“But the need for isolation has certainly been met for most people and now they’re into a kind of overload — especially the people that are alone or are not in social settings with their families around.”

As the consequences of ignoring physical distancing measures become more abstract, breaking physical distancing can seem less risky. This behaviour can be explained through the theory of risk compensation, which postulates that people adjust their behaviour in response to the changes in risk around them.

“Being social creatures, we have a certain tolerance for isolation and a need for it. But the need for isolation has certainly been met for most people and now they’re into a kind of overload.”

— Dr. Lawrence Frank, sustainable transport and public health professor

This bias has been theorized to be one of the reasons behind the recent increase in head injuries in hockey, after helmets have been required in the sport for some years now. Thinking that the level of risk has changed can be the catalyst someone needs to ignore public safety guidelines.

Age can also play a part in isolation fatigue. New research out of Stanford University suggests that those between the ages of 18–31 years old are more likely to break physical distancing guidelines. This group is also the least likely to experience severe symptoms of COVID-19.

Yet, plenty of people are still voluntarily self-isolating.

When a behaviour is new, people are more likely to practice it if that behaviour is modelled for them. In terms of COVID-19, if someone sees other people practicing physical distancing, they will be more inclined to distance themselves as well.

Physical distancing is even more likely if it is modelled by those they trust and admire. When authority figures ignore physical distancing while advising quarantine guidelines, people lose their trust and are less likely to follow their advice.

“We believe in people we trust,” said Cadesky. “The problem is people who are not trustworthy leaders try to take advantage of anger and disgust to elicit a reaction.

“We should give ourselves time to think, to reduce screen times and to consider whether information being presented is for the common good or for profit.”

As multiple narratives regarding what people should do flood the media, people rely on the leadership they trust. Compelling and honest communication from leadership can help build people’s confidence. Leadership’s silence or lack of trustworthy communication allows under-researched narratives to thrive. Similarly, consistency in messages is important as guidelines that vary from area to area confuse those who would follow them otherwise.

“Life is hectic and anxious,” acknowledged Cadesky. “People have every reason to be emotional. The best that we can do is to consider the information presented to us and our biases.”