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What is the right way to respond to Covid-19? What is the right amount of panic? And precaution? How about the right amount of calm adherence to normalcy?

Because the Coronavirus is new, it is presenting us with a somewhat novel behavioural situation. The virus is spreading at different paces in different places, and countries around the world are producing highly variable responses to the pandemic.

Our species evolved to adapt to wildly different climates and landscapes primarily by learning from others. When presented with new challenges, our best bet is usually to look at how others around us are coping, and to copy their behaviour. In fact, much of human behaviour is influenced by what we believe about the behaviour of those around us. Just as early humans colonising the arctic would have learned from each other to keep warm and fish through ice, now our current population will look to neighbours and peers when deciding how to deal with the Coronavirus. But what if we face a challenge so new that no one really knows yet what the ‘best’ response is, or what if some do and others do not? How do we know who to copy? …


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Over the past decade, the field of applied behavioural science has developed an array of methods to influence public behaviour. Many involve behaviour change interventions that systematically alter one (or a handful) of characteristics in the environment in which people make choices and then test the effects of the new environment(s) against the original environment.


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Imagine, if you will, that you’re participating in a resource dilemma. This shouldn’t be hard. We are all actually, at this very moment, participating in the largest resource dilemma our species has ever seen.

Let’s go on to say you’re an employee of a company. Let’s also say you love going on vacation with your family. You vote. You like sushi. You pay taxes, write thank you cards, and call your mum regularly. You do your laundry on Sundays and never (well, almost never) forget to bring the recycling out on Tuesday nights.

Now, let’s get back to your (our) resource dilemma. What even is a resource dilemma? …

About

Rebecca Koomen

Psychology Lecturer at University of Dundee, research in evolutionary & comparative psychology, focusing on environmental cooperation.

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