Originally published 6 July 20
Here is the conclusion:
At the least, government agencies must promulgate clear, explicit norms and rules to facilitate cooperative choices. Most people congregating in tight spaces are telling themselves a story about why what they are doing is okay. Such stories flourish under confusing or ambivalent norms. People are not irrevocably chaotic decision makers; the level of clarity in human thinking depends on how hard a problem is. I know with certainty whether I’m staying home, but the confidence interval around “I am being careful” is really wide. Concrete guidance makes challenges easier to resolve. If masks work, states and communities should require them unequivocally. Cognitive biases are the reason to mark off six-foot spaces on the supermarket floor or circles in the grass at a park.
For social-distancing shaming to be a valuable public-health tool, average citizens should reserve it for overt defiance of clear official directives—failure to wear a mask when one is required—rather than mere cases of flawed judgment. In the meantime, money and power are located in public and private institutions that have access to public-health experts and the ability to propose specific behavioral norms. The bad judgments that really deserve shaming include the failure to facilitate testing, failure to protect essential workers, failure to release larger numbers of prisoners from facilities that have become COVID-19 hot spots, and failure to create the material conditions that permit strict isolation. America’s half-hearted reopening is a psychological morass, a setup for defeat that will be easy to blame on irresponsible individuals while culpable institutions evade scrutiny.
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