As the scale of societal change in the face of this pandemic has crystallised, there is understandable concern about whether people will be able to withstand ongoing restrictions. Life is suddenly tough.
Our freedoms are curtailed. We cannot interact with friends and extended family. Engagement with wider society is occasional and conducted through perspex. Sport, nights out and travel are gone. There is little scope for spontaneity. How long can we keep this up?
“Behavioural fatigue” is the idea that such radical changes to our behaviour are inevitably time-limited. Indeed, many things that require effort are necessarily temporary: concentration on a vital piece of work, pretending to listen to a bore, sit-ups. The question is whether we can adapt to our new circumstances, or whether they inevitably drain limited willpower and resilience.
There is evidence that effortful changes in behaviour designed to improve health can decay, for instance when people attempt diets or exercise routines. However, while behavioural fatigue was discussed as a possible reason why the UK delayed physical distancing measures, there is no evidence that behaviour change is necessarily time-limited in the context of an event like a pandemic. These waters are largely uncharted.
As part of the NPHET Behavioural Change Subgroup, we have been conducting research to examine how the Irish population is adapting. The answer is extraordinarily well. There is no evidence, yet, for behavioural fatigue in Ireland.
Indeed, people are highly supportive of the restrictions. If anything, support has grown, as has awareness and motivation to comply with the various restrictive measures in place. A recent survey conducted with the market research company Amárach, based on over 1,200 people, showed that nearly 89 per cent of the Irish population were in favour of the current level of restrictions.
These views are shared even by people who have suffered substantial income loss and other significant disruptions. Furthermore, people show an increasing acceptance that restrictions may last beyond the initial windows. Most believe that the restrictions will now last into the summer.
Of course, we need to be careful to rely on more than surveys. Widespread compliance with restrictions is reflected in other measures, including the fall in the number of contacts per infected case, which has plummeted over the last few weeks.
Nevertheless, there are challenges. Our studies also show that people are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety. The stress of trying to home-school children, coping with income loss, worry about family, and loss of routine are all emerging as issues. Prolonged restrictions have the potential to cause problems across many areas that in normal times require strong and continued state action, such as law-and-order and mental health.
There will be specific instances where restrictions create particular hardships, such as for people at risk from domestic violence, people with chronic physical health conditions, and people with other care needs. Supports for people displaced in industries that suffer longer-term shocks will be important as we progress to the next phase. Huge efforts are ongoing to facilitate people to maintain their mental and physical health, not only from the state but from the private and voluntary sectors. Ideas and interventions have been rolled out on traditional media and spread via social media.
Ensuring that people can stay the course involves a combination of very clear and consistent communication backed by serious economic resources to ensure that people do not face hardship in staying away from their workplace. There may be instances where solidarity is tested, perhaps even where some individuals or groups are tempted to push back against the restrictions. Such instances have already been reported in parts of Italy and Spain, where the lockdown has lasted longer and the outbreak has been more severe.
Exceptions and extremes are always newsworthy. As this period of restriction progresses, it will be important that people know how the large majority or their fellow citizens are getting on. We know from many sources of evidence that people will make sacrifices provided they feel that others are doing so as well.
Feedback matters too. If people can see the impact that their behaviour has on numbers of new infections, if they can see that it is helping our health services to cope, then their resolve to overcome fatigue may strengthen.
Where new, positive habits form, life under the restrictions will feel more sustainable. Home-working in Ireland has traditionally lagged many other similar economies. Yet we are proving our ability to work from home, with people beginning to discuss knock-on benefits for the longer term regarding congestion and flexibility.
Behaviours like handwashing, cough and sneeze etiquette, and social distancing are being supported through changes to our physical environment, and facilitated through the promotion of healthy habits. Adaptations are being made to ensure that shops and work environments are ready for medium-term scenarios where restrictions are partially lifted.
“Behavioural fatigue” is a nebulous concept and not a reason to lift restrictions prematurely. The situation is unique, evolving, and requires constant updating in response to new information. There is no evidence yet that behavioural fatigue is a significant factor in Ireland’s response to this crisis. Rather, evidence thus far suggests that the public and the medical experts overwhelmingly agree about what needs to be done.
Liam Delaney is Professor of Economics at UCD. Pete Lunn is Associate Research Professor and head of the Behavioural Research Unit at the ESRI. These represent independent views.