The entire world has felt the jolt from the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Routines of daily life are disrupted, making even the most basic constructs change. Gathering is limited, children are home from school (and “pandemic-learning”), communication is distant, travel is scarce and even ways to get physical activity has become remote. While changes are difficult, people are quickly learning to acclimate. Rather than stopping during the initial shock, the world reassessed how to adjust to new limitations. Acknowledging new priorities and finding solutions on how to integrate them into life is crucial for enduring such a trying situation. Coping strategies acquired during this extraordinary time can promote growth that may extend far beyond the shelter-in-place timeline.
One of the many hurdles to overcome is giving up customs that often guide our lives, such as morning gym workouts, weekly date nights (or parent night out), or weekly happy hours at the local bar. Habits are formed through the repetition of behavior, eventually becoming something so ingrained it feels automatic and often emotionally comforting. A trigger is what sparks a behavioral-emotional habit loop of cues, routines and rewards which guides our lifestyles. People follow behavioral patterns in hopes of receiving the same desired outcome of a previous experience. Context is a key component to initiating a habit, which explains why people don’t call the dentist to schedule a haircut. The clients know from experience that dentists don’t cut hair. Memories, including the scissors on the hairdresser’s logo or a goodie-bag including floss at the dentist’s office, enforce expectations. Small changes to environmental cues, such as a long wait-time at the salon, are processed by our brain’s neural pathways to respond appropriately and store the new information if the same circumstance should happen in the future (Berkman, 2018). But what happens when the routine is completely flipped upside-down and inside-out? It can be an opportunity to hit the reset button and make real personal changes to our lifestyles.
Just wipe the slate clean?
To explore human behavior effectively, concepts from behavioral economics help break down the process of choice. Analyzing the instinctive and unconscious (System 1) or rational and deliberate (System 2) modes of thinking will help to explain the way individuals respond to hardship (Kahneman, 2011). The extreme results of the COVID-19 outbreak resulted in a complete environmental change from the norm. The immediate response of fear is represented by the newfound value in toilet paper or hand sanitizer. Emotionally buying is a System 1 response to the uncertainty of a difficult situation. Yet, before worrying about the chaos caused by a lack of structure, it helps to remember two things: control and freedom. This is an opportunity to reflect on the habits embedded in our routine and decide if a particular routine helps or hurts. Instead of grabbing Starbucks while heading to the office, we now can decide if the morning caffeine intake from Starbucks is necessary or if brewing a cup at home will do the trick. Furthermore, the freedom of choice allows the individual to decide what routines should continue and which ones to leave behind.
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The disruption of behavior brings an explicit awareness of the effort needed for tasks often done automatically. With the need to stay home, virtual classes and online meetings have quickly been adopted by institutions and companies. Is traveling for meeting really optimal? Using a virtual format while capturing the essence of a physical event helps save time, money and travel while still maintaining the objective for connecting. Additionally, dismantling geographical barriers can promote brainstorming and innovation. Some families are having virtual parties with grandparents or chatting with classmates via FaceTime on cell phones. Platforms such as Zoom allow for face-to-face communications, while larger-scale events, such as social media concerts, are now available on Instagram Live where millions of users can listen to an artist in real-time. These adjustments to family dynamics, entertainment, business and educational discussions may have lasting effects and change the fundamental way people interact.
While every challenging situation is unique, parallels can be drawn from past scenarios to show how periods of disruption can make lasting impacts. For example, Larcom, Rauch and Willems (2017) review how the London underground network strike forced commuters to change their morning routine to work. Since the underground rail network was not an option, commuters were forced to use other forms of public transportation- call a taxi, walk, bike or work remotely- until the strike ended. Exploring alternative methods motivated 5% of the commuters to permanently switch to more optimal travel options even when the strike ended (Larcom, Rauch, & Willems, 2017). Disruption, even if it seems inconvenient in the short term, may ultimately increase efficiency.
Let’s Reframe the Game Plan—More Social, More Distance
The World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and local government officials are stressing the importance of staying home and minimizing contact. The message of distancing is important to emphasize how separation can save lives. However, individuals are being creative in finding socialization and avoiding isolation. Numerous community pages have started to share tips, ideas and strategies to overcome challenges. Colleges are offering virtual career fairs to students entering the workforce in May, while parents are swapping tips on ways to keep children entertained. Additionally, a new wave of “virtual volunteerism” is growing, where digital ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ programs for residents in nursing homes allow them to engage with other members of the community. Viral dances and memes about #quarantinelife and Netflix’s Tiger King are motivated by people seeking connection. Coalitions are developing from the need to network and improve, from business partnerships to various government agencies. Focusing on ways to realistically moderate challenges like COVID-19 will give insight into ways to adapt for future obstacles. Harnessing the motivation to collaborate, network and brainstorm ideas during times of hardship will promote growth and lay the groundwork for progression.
“Viral dances and memes about #quarantinelife and Netflix’s Tiger King are motivated by people seeking connection.”
Lead the Change
In times of uncertainty, individuals look to others (meaning experts, families and companies) as guides for behavior. The comfort from finding strength in numbers is known in psychology as social proof or informational social cue (Talib & Saat, 2017). Marketers use this theory frequently to help convince consumers to purchase a product or service. Netflix famously has an algorithm for the “match percentage,” but this has virtually no meaning to users other than to address the paradox of choice. The additional information of a “95% match,” even if it has no meaning, helps justify decisions because it provides an excuse. Furthermore, social community recommendations, celebrity suggestions and numbers of likes can also sway public opinion and influence action. Individuals will look to the power of the public opinion for guidance as this period is a time of reset. Understanding how disrupting our normal routine has a bigger purpose can be a source of motivation during this challenging time. The circumstances force people to think outside the box about ways to connect, challenge and better themselves (or at least squeeze in some time to laugh at memes).
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.
Larcom, S., Rauch, F., & Willems, T. (2017). The benefits of forced experimentation: striking evidence from the London underground network. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 132(4), 2019-2055.
Talib, Y. Y. A., & Saat, R. M. (2017). Social proof in social media shopping: An experimental design research. In SHS Web of Conferences (Vol. 34, p. 02005). EDP Sciences.