Friday, May 15, 2020

Behaviorism and the response to coronavirus

 - by New Deal democrat

As I mention from time to time, long long ago in a galaxy far far away I was a graduate student in a program affiliated with a Famous Business School which advertised itself as applying an interdisciplinary approach to public policy. Since I had an undergraduate degree in behavioral psychology, I thought this would be a fruitful career choice. Instead, it turned out that it was all about applying Chicago-school type economics to political and legal decisions. When I confronted a professor on a point where I knew that psychology - backed by all kinds of experimental evidence - predicted a different result, I was told that “it all randomizes out.” I changed career paths.

But there are times I wonder what would have happened had I instead found a willing advisor in the graduate Psychology department, and pursued both experiments and mathematical modeling to incorporate the insights of empirical psychology into *macro*economics. Even now, decades later, when it comes to macroeconomics, the only big insight I have seen modeled is how losses have much more of an effect on economic behavior than gains.

Anyway, the coronavirus pandemic is a potentially fruitful episode of applying behavioral insights to forecasting the path of the outbreak. This is because the main and decisive variable isn’t the virus itself, which is nothing more than a parasitic copying machine, but human reactions to the spread of the virus.

COVID-19 has several aspects that make it difficult for humans to stick to an effective deterrent behavior path:
  • There is no palpable immediate evidence of infection. Symptoms take days to show up.
  • Infections do not always cause significant symptoms. Many people either have very mild symptoms, or maybe none at all.
  • A very large percentage of outbreaks so far have been in confined and discrete populations: e.g., nursing homes, factories, and prisons.
  • As a result, many people know of no one who has contracted the disease at all, or if they do, the person has not had a severe case.
  • Taking adequate precautions means that *nothing* happens - there is no effect that provides feedback.

All of the above are conducive of a failure in widespread behavioral adaptation.

As to the first, it is a principal of behaviorism that the reinforcement should be immediate. The lengthier the delay between the behavior and the result, the less likely the person is to draw the necessary conclusion that the first led to the second. If at the moment of infection a red splotch suddenly appeared on the person’s face, you can bet they would be horrified - and the people around them, noticing the blotch, would head for the hills immediately.

As to the second, it means that the result of the behavior is sometimes very limited, or non-existent. This only incentivizes risk-taking behavior. If having the disease was always miserable, people would be much more inclined to avoid it.

As to the third, it means that for a majority of the population, only “others” - those with parents in nursing homes, relatives in prison, or immigrant communities who work in factories - have been affected, again leading to the supposition that “I’m not at risk.” If the 1 in 3000 people in the US who have died, not to mention those severely infected, were randomly spread out among the population, many more people would know someone personally who was either very sick, or had died.

As to the final note, when is the last time you saw a politician posing besides a road that looks exactly as it did last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, as a result of good ongoing maintenance? Never, right? A good example is what happened with Dutch elm disease in the 1950s. If communities followed proper precautions with their street trees, the result was - nothing happened. As a result it was one of the easiest budget items to cut. Of course, after several years the disease spread like wildfire and the trees were permanently lost.

Put these factors together, and it is easy to see how a Cult of Denialism has taken root (aided and abetted, of course, by Trump).

Since there is a two to four week delay between when large portions of society change their behavior and when the effects show up in infections or deaths, I expect that there will be a repeated waxing and waning of taking adequate precautions.

The result will likely be a pattern similar to the “Oil choke collar” I used to write about 5 to 10 years ago. After the Great Recession, for about 6 years the price of gas would repeatedly rise to close to $4/gallon. As a result, people would cut back on other spending. The economy would slow down significantly, which would in turn cause the price of a gas to fall back down to $3/gallon or below. People would start spending the extra cash, and the economy would accelerate again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Put those insights all together, and I am expecting the longer term path of the infection in the US to follow close to a “flattening the curve” scenario, where there is not enough political or social will to undertake or sustain the behaviors necessary to contain the outbreak; but when laxity leads to a spike in new infections, there will be enough renewed fear to cause enough people to reinstitute good behaviors that the outbreaks will attenuate.