This column is an opinion by Brooke Struck, research director at The Decision Lab. Before joining TDL he consulted in evidence-based policy and data-driven decisions, advising clients including the European Commission, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and the Government of Canada. He worked on the COVI contact-tracing project, and with Montreal Public Health to develop COVID-related decision-support tools around compliance and vaccination. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Wear a mask. Stay home. Wash your hands. Over the past year, we’ve all generally abided by these rules, even with fairly minimal risk of punishment for breaking them. Though coercive measures — such as fines or imprisonment — have technically been on the table, it’s social norms that have helped us to adopt and maintain these crucial behaviours.
But with vaccination ramping up, the situation is going to become much more complex.
Vaccinations create a challenge in terms of how to keep these important COVID-curbing behaviours working. Those behaviours are especially important right now, with case counts surging and the variants getting a foothold in Canada even as our vaccination campaign builds momentum.
Social norms are basically the standards of what people consider to be appropriate social behaviour. As articulated by Erez Yoeli, a leading behavioural researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), there are three key ingredients that give a social norm its power.
The first is that the social norm needs to be clear and explicit. We all need to know what the rules are.
The second is that the act of abiding by the rules has to be visible. We have to be able to tell when people are following the rules and when they’re not.
And the third is that there can’t be plausible deniability. If it’s too easy for me to talk my way out of something — to others or even to myself — I’ll find loopholes to avoid the rules. This often happens subconsciously through what’s known as motivated reasoning.
In this third area, vaccination creates an important challenge.
Up until now, only a small fraction of the population has tested positive for COVID-19. However, given the possibility of asymptomatic illness, nearly everybody had to live as though we, and all those around us, might be sick and not know it yet.
Widespread vaccination will change that.
WATCH | 10 million vaccine doses have now been delivered to the provinces and territories:
Over the next few months, more and more of the Canadian population will be vaccinated. That’s going to create a plausible deniability problem that could have a huge impact on social norms.
To illustrate, suppose I’m waiting at a bus stop and not wearing a mask. What reaction should I expect from my fellow passengers? In January, when next to nobody had been vaccinated, I’d expect them to stare daggers at me.
By summer, with a substantial number of Canadians vaccinated (and hopefully lower case counts), I’d expect a more muted reaction. There will be uncertainty: “Maybe this person hasn’t had a vaccine and they’re irresponsible. Or maybe they have had a vaccine and their behaviour is therefore perhaps reasonable.” For a casual observer, there’s just no way to know.
This doubt — this plausible deniability about someone’s behaviour and whether the same rules apply to them — can undermine social norms in powerful ways.
As more people are vaccinated, it will provide an increasingly easy route for those who wish to flaunt the rules without incurring the judgment of others, eroding the behavioural norms that have been prompting us all to wear masks and physically distance for the past year.
At the same time, guidelines from federal and provincial governments on how to behave after getting the long-awaited jab have struck a dour and uncertain tone. Vaccinated people are advised to behave exactly as they were before.
So after being told for a year that the vaccine is our saving grace, we’re now being told that nothing changes once we’ve had it (at least for now). This not only removes part of the incentive to get the vaccine, it also creates frustration towards public health authorities and erodes credibility: How could vaccination be both essential and inconsequential?
To sum up, social norms have been key to encouraging compliance for the past year, but vaccines could undermine their effectiveness. Meanwhile, the motivation to get vaccinated comes from wanting to get out of this mess of a pandemic, but we’re still told to stay masked and in full physical distancing mode after getting the shot — with no defined end date.
As the weather warms up and the prospect of summer fun beckons, this set of conflicting policies could easily lead some people to give up on preventative measures and vaccines — both of which are crucial to maintaining public health while COVID-19 is circulating.
WATCH | Canada’s deputy chief public health officer discusses how life might change for Canadians post-vaccination:
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