The Atlantic

Just as the coronavirus outbreak has so far spread unevenly across the country and the world, so too has the caution that is necessary to mitigate it. For each American leaving home only when absolutely necessary, it seems, there is another who is cavalierly out and about like it’s still 2019.

Many in the former group have been saddled with the terribly vital task of getting those in the latter group to change their ways and stop endangering their own and others’ lives. Government health agencies and other experts have repeatedly emphasized that the decisions people make about leaving the house and sanitizing their surroundings have a significant effect on how quickly the disease spreads.

But how to impress those stakes upon the youths who continue to party and the 60-somethings who still want to get a haircut? I consulted a researcher who studies the psychology of pandemics, a public-health expert, and a clinical psychologist who specializes in families and relationships. Below are their general tips—as well as an example script—for communicating with friends and loved ones who still aren’t taking the pandemic seriously enough.


“Some people don’t realize that it’s in everyone’s interest for them to socially distance and so forth,” said Steven Taylor, a professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics. He told me that in many cases, when people behave in a way that hurts the common good—whether that’s continuing to meet up with friends or panic-buying stockpiles of food and supplies—they’re focusing on the risks they personally face.

Reminding them that these actions can hurt others is a delicate task, but it helps to be strategic about how they conceptualize those others. “We relate more to small groups close to ourselves, or kinship groups,” Taylor said, “so if you're [making an appeal like] ‘You'd be helping people like Grandma’ or ‘You'd be helping your neighbor that you like down the hallway who's a single mom with two children’—something that they can relate to—that's going to have a greater impact” than telling them how changing their behavior would benefit the rest of their country or society at large. It might be particularly effective to tell someone that their caution will protect someone they live with—a parent, a partner, a child.

The coronavirus outbreak is a story often told numerically: confirmed cases, fatality rates, hospital-bed capacities, and so on. But most of the time, you’ll probably have better luck persuading someone if you leave out the statistics. “Trying to identify a human face of people who have experienced coronavirus” probably has a better chance of swaying a listener who hasn’t yet seen the catastrophic effects of the virus firsthand, said Rachael Piltch-Loeb, a fellow at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.

“The narrative or anecdotal approach tends to resonate with people,” she explained. Effective stories might involve a member of the listener’s extended family or someone in their community or a public figure they adore (such as, perhaps, Tom Hanks)—the goal is for them to be “able to identify with the protagonist.” You can also tell stories about the future, she said: Try talking about “the need to social distance in the short term so you can go on your Memorial Day weekend holiday in the longer term.”

The experts I spoke with were particularly concerned about the effects of stockpiling food and medical supplies, which can lead to shortages. But Taylor recommended being careful when broaching subjects about which you might be inclined to speak in command form. “‘Don’t hoard,’ ‘don’t panic’—those sorts of statements can sometimes backfire,” he said.

Often, Taylor said, people are doing whatever they’re doing to maintain a sense of control over the situation, to feel like they’re protecting themselves. “So you could give them another option” to achieve a similar effect, he suggested. “Instead of saying, ‘Stop panic-buying,’ say, ‘Why don’t you start helping seniors, start donating to the food bank or delivering groceries to your neighbors who are unable to leave their homes?’”

In addition to taking care with your message, be thoughtful about the emotional valence of what you say as well. “Being empathic, nonjudgmental, noncritical, affectionate in tone—all those things are going to be much more likely to motivate the other person to care about what you have to say,” said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and a senior fellow at the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonpartisan research consortium. These are, he said, “the most humane ways to engage with other people, but they’re also the most persuasive.”

“The more you can introduce the idea that you don't think the other person is crazy or stupid or foolish or overly gullible,” Coleman added, the more receptive they’ll be; people are generally more open to doing things they previously resisted when they feel cared about and understood.

He also suggested empathizing with the drudgery of resisting a pandemic—the social distancing, the relentless scrubbing of hands. That empathy might sound like this: “I hate doing it too—it’s really irritating and tedious. I completely get why you wouldn’t want to do it, but I think these things are really cause for concern.”

One reason people may underrate the gravity of a pandemic is that they harbor doubts about mainstream science or mistrust authority figures, but a pandemic is not the time to address that skepticism. “People have underlying value and belief systems that are very difficult to change,” Piltch-Loeb said. “If we don’t want to get into an existential conversation about all those things, we’re better off focusing on the issue at hand”—say, the need to stop meeting up with friends or running nonessential errands—“and trying to separate it from the core belief system.”

Some behaviors are easier changed than others. When I asked Piltch-Loeb what she thought was the easiest habit to shift that would still have a big public-health payoff, she said thorough hand-washing. “Personal distancing is No. 1,” she said, “but I think there’s a higher barrier to entry to convince people [to do] that.”

Coleman advised being sensitive to how any information you share with someone about the pandemic might be affected by your history of interacting with that person. “Let’s say you have a long-standing sibling rivalry,” he said. “Almost anything that comes out of your mouth, your sibling is going to hear in a defensive way. They’re going to be far less motivated to hear what you’re saying with love and compassion, and much more likely to think of it in the context of, Oh, you’re just trying to control me, criticize me, or shame me.” (Calibrating accordingly probably means heeding Coleman’s aforementioned advice to be nice.)

Thankfully, most siblings and other loved ones aren’t resentful all the time—these people care about you on some level. Coleman provided a script that might work on stubborn relatives and friends:

I love you and care about you, and I understand you don't agree with me about these concerns. But if you're not going to do it for yourself, would you consider doing it for me, just so I don’t feel so worried about you getting the infection or giving it to somebody else? I understand you don't think it should be taken as seriously as I do, and maybe it will turn out that I was being too cautious, but would you consider doing it, just so I can sleep at night?

If a friend or loved one seems like they’d be open to learning more about the pandemic, it might help to send them an article—or video, or tweet, or what have you—that you find particularly clarifying. (The Atlantic has a guide to our most important COVID-19 coverage here.) Piltch-Loeb cautioned that the source of the article matters a lot. “If I have certain leanings and I don’t agree with the [perceived bias] of the publication you’re sending me, I’m really likely to dismiss the content,” she said. “If you’re sending me an article from a source that I typically read, or that would resonate with me based on my underlying belief system,” that’d be more effective. (A genuine obstacle here is that many media personalities are still pushing the narrative that everyone else is overreacting to the pandemic.)

Some people simply won’t make the changes that would slow the spread of the disease, no matter how many loving appeals you make to them. “There are only so many arguments that are [convincing] to people,” Coleman said. “Sometimes people just have to agree to disagree about some things.” It’s distressing that pandemics can fall under that category, but at some point, your energies may be better directed toward people who are willing to listen.

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