Globally acclaimed behavioural economist and best-selling author Dan Ariely says that people will return to old ways and shed social distancing shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak is brought to an end. This, he argues, is because we, as a society, choose efficiency over resilience and, therefore, are not naturally inclined to think long-term.
Responding to questions on the long-term consequences of social distancing and remote working, Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, says, “These are complex questions. I think that the effect of the coronavirus is going to be long.”
He adds that, however, all that will depend on how we act during the crisis and after that to regroup. “I think initially people will stick to social distancing out of fear but maybe six months or so later we will get closer to each other again,” says this Israeli-American academic who is considered one of the world’s most influential living psychologists.
Ariely, 52, holds doctorates in cognitive psychology and business administration. A serial entrepreneur, he is also a prolific author. His works include Dollars and Sense; Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions; The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home; The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves and so on.
The renowned professor cautions that if we get people to wear masks for longer and close public places for longer, then it will take us longer to get back to old habits. For example, he notes, “if theatres go bankrupt, then, of course, it will be even slower to go back to social gathering”.
He elaborates on the efficiency versus resilience argument: “This virus demonstrated that we are ill-prepared for a catastrophe … hospitals are equipped to deal with the standard inflow and outflow. Almost all normal hospitals don’t have extra capacity. Our economic systems are basically designed to work efficiently, as efficiently as possible. But they are not designed for a day of emergency. Very few governments would say let’s put money aside for a rainy day. There are very few companies that do it.”
Ariely goes on to add that we as a human race probably may not learn any lessons at all from this pandemic. He talks of another scenario: “We will go back to the system that is not built for resilience or it could be that we will pass some rules and regulations and force ourselves to work against our nature and to create systems that will have resilience. But our nature is not to think long-term.” Ariely has learnt a lot from his own life experiences, especially from massive third-degree burns he suffered as a teenager that forced him to spend a few years in hospital where he began to observe how nurses viewed pain. It was his hardship during this period that inspired him to study human behaviour.
The Duke University psychologist avers that if governments want to get people to think long-term, they will have to create systems that force people to think long-term.
Ariely states that it is also likely that we might use this critical opportunity to revise and reexamine our current priorities. He explains, “I will give you an example about education. Clearly, it is a time where, in many places, schools are shut and kids are learning from a distance. When we come back from this (contagion), one possibility is that we will go back to schools as normal. Another possibility is that (somebody will say) hey look, distance education is actually not that bad,” he says.
“(They will say) it is not ideal. But we should set up a system that will allow kids, if needed, to study from home. So, education could be digitally mediated.” What about working remotely? “Some people are doing better and some people not so well. So, we have to try that, too,” he emphasizes.
Ariely then ponders, “Will we take that opportunity? I don’t know yet, but I certainly hope we do.”