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Bridging the Gap Between Knowing and Doing

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Do we have a 2nd Wave attitude problem?  

We all know what we should be doing; wearing masks, social distancing, personal hygiene, Covid-19 testing etc., yet over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a significant increase in non-compliance and, in some cases, active resistance to these behaviours.   

This phenomenon is not unique to the Covid-19 pandemic, we see it happening around us, in many situations. We know that ‘bad’ behaviours such as excessive drinking, junk foods or working long hours, have a detrimental effect on our health. Yet, many of us continue to make unhealthy choices, even with the threat of illness or death.  

So why do we take extraordinary risks and persist in making unhealthy choices?  

Neuroscience may help us understand. It explains why we struggle to do the right thing, even when we know better.   

When threatened, our brain sends strong signals to fight or flight and equips up physically by triggering useful hormones. In Feb/March, the Covid-19 advice was mostly consistent; here is the problem (global pandemic), the impact (data around the economy, mortality and illness) and the advice (recommended behaviour change). Despite the enormous economic impact, the threat of death and disease was sufficient for almost all of us to regulate and conform.

The resulting disruption and uncertainty triggered a prolonged stress response in many of us – increased cortisol (stress hormone) and decreased serotonin and dopamine (happy hormones) so ‘survival’ became our priority. The threat was so significant, we listened to the experts and did what we were told. 

So, what is different this time round? Why does it feel harder to comply in 2nd Wave?  

Complex emotions: When restrictions were lifted, we were given a taste of freedom; we could socialise (within guidelines), choose how to spend our time and had something to look forward to. We moved from feeling fear and loss, to hope for a new normal. When the 2nd wave quickly occurred in Victoria, the news hit hard and, for many, the imposed restrictions had a greater emotional impact. As well as fear and loss, there was resentment, anger and in some cases, hopelessness. We understood new restrictions were necessary, however, we resented having to change our way of life, again.  

Motivation: 2nd wave has been more complex and we have had to make personal choices based on many variables and decide what’s ‘right’ for us as an individual, not a collective. Extrinsic motivators such as ‘if you keep your distance, you can socialise’ are not as effective when faced with multiple options and conflicting emotions.  

Defiance: In the face of a paternalistic approach by the Victorian Premiere and other health advisors, there was a pattern of child-like responses e.g. protesting the right to be mask-free or defying the imposed quarantine restrictions. Most people were prepared to conform to the parental advice until others began to rebel. At which point, questions about legal rights and freedom of choice emerged and resistance to change became a popular theme on social media.  

Self-deception: While most of us intend to do the right thing, when faced with a tricky choice, we go through a process of weighing up the pros and cons and will often choose the option that gives us the greatest reward. If we have given ourselves an ‘out’ such as ‘I’ll assess each situation as it arises’, we can deceive ourselves into believing we are doing the right thing, when we are not. For instance, I have insisted on my family wearing a mask outside the house however, I conveniently forgot to bring it with me when catching up with my neighbours for a drink.   

Typically, we judge ourselves by our intentions, and others by their behaviour so, while we are likely to forgive ourselves for not conforming to health advice, we are less likely to forgive others.  

There is much to learn about our emotions and behaviour during the 2nd wave of Covid-19. The choices we make about how to respond to threat are driven by complex emotions, so it is necessary to recognise and possibly change our internal narrative to reconcile the complexity of what we are experiencing.

So, how do we bridge the gap between what we know and what we do? First, we look beyond the problem we are all facing (what we have lost or must give up) and consider ways to accelerate positive outcomes in the face of adversity. 

Accept our emotional responses: most of us have lost something of value e.g. jobs, connections with extended family etc. so are likely to be experiencing strong negative emotions. For us to clear a path to more positive feelings, we must first respect all our emotional responses, without giving them power over our choices. 

Purpose: get clear about the future we wish to create and get excited about what we can contribute to others. Rather than focusing on what we must give up, try focusing on what is possible and what we can gain. 

Intrinsic motivation: identify activities that tap into our intrinsic need for autonomy, mastery, purpose and connection (Pink, 2010), within the constraints imposed upon us. Create positive opportunities that make you feel good and grateful e.g. family Zoom meetings or walks in the park. 

Commitment and choices: share our purpose and choices with the people around us, then commit to the actions that are consistent with these choices. 

Our emotions, values and beliefs can enable us to overcome the fear of disruption and uncertainty and help steer us in a positive direction. Through this pandemic, we have had to change our habits and behaviours and while it has been hard, we now know it is possible. This knowledge is helpful when we must change in the future. If we can get through this, we can get through anything, right? 

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