Auburn business professor looks at why some follow COVID-19 safety guidelines, others do not

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As the world reopens from the COVID-19 quarantines, Professor Brian Connelly of Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business discusses why some people follow guidelines and others do not. He looks at how people weigh their personal safety decisions and says now would be a good time to demonstrate an extra measure of empathy toward others.

Q: How do people feel about reopening the economy?

Brian Connelly: An Auburn-area homeowner association is debating whether and when to open the neighborhood pool. Formerly cordial neighbors have drawn battle lines, complete with harshly worded emails and icy stares during evening walks. One side is demanding strict guidelines, to include designated swim times, enforced social distancing and regular disinfecting schedules. Another side suggests a more laissez-faire approach that allows individuals to make their own decisions.

This strained dynamic, with two opposing camps that loosely align with partisan values, is playing out the world over as neighborhoods, businesses, universities and governments try to figure out how to reopen their doors to the public. To make matters worse, the suddenly imposed stresses of child care, difficulties of working at home, job loss and a hurting economy spill over to affect people’s attitude and behavior with respect to reopening.

Everyone wants to reopen the economy as soon and safely as possible. The key differences, though, might be rooted in how people respond to the recommended guidelines associated with reopening. You are seeing this now in stores as some people wear masks and others do not, and there appears to be a certain level of animosity between the maskers and the no-maskers.

Q: Why do some people follow strict guidelines and others do not?

Connelly: The answer lies in what psychologist Ronald Rogers calls “Protection Motivation Theory.” Sociologists use this theory to describe whether people will choose to protect themselves from a threatening event, and we use it in business to describe managerial responses to threats.

For example, researchers in the Netherlands used this theory to help explain whether people in Europe and Asia would engage in behavior to prevent the spread of the avian flu. Others have used the theory to describe prevention behavior in the context of driving safely, avoiding alcoholism, vaccinating against the flu, preventing cavities, safely using pesticides and even preventing nuclear war.

Rogers suggests that people will ask four questions when assessing whether they will engage in a behavior designed to protect against COVID-19:

  • How likely is it that I (or others) get the disease? This speaks to the issue of vulnerability. The problem here is that we are all subject to cognitive biases. We look at data from the news, but we self-select our news sources and then only hear what we want to hear. Our assessments about vulnerability could be highly inaccurate, in either direction, unless we force ourselves to consider a wide range of information.
  • If I (or others) get the disease, how bad will it be? This question is about severity. People sometimes confound severity and vulnerability when they talk about COVID-19, but cognitively we assess them independently. Again here, an accurate assessment of severity is largely dependent on accurate information.
  • Does protection work? This is called response efficacy, and it is aimed at a behavior. If people cannot readily understand whether a behavior will make a tangible difference, they will not do it. We are learning more every day about behaviors that are likely to have an immediate impact on reducing contagion and others that might be less effective.
  • At what cost does protection come? The “costs” are not only financial but also intangible. In the U.S. we have a highly individualistic culture that clings closely to a person’s freedoms. Many, therefore, are weighing the economic and social consequences of various protective guidelines, trying to determine the real price of protection vis-à-vis the price of the disease.

Q: What should businesses and individuals do?

Connelly: For businesses, you might focus on the last two factors because that is where you can have the greatest impact. Ensure that your customers know why you are implementing protection measures and how those measures contribute to their and everyone’s safety. A local pizza restaurant, for example, did a great job with their customers as they explained why they would be a little slow in opening their full service because they needed to restructure internally to implement proper spacing and disinfecting guidelines. At the same time, communicate to them that you also care about the nonsafety-related costs of protection. People still need to buy clothes, get their computer repaired and even engage socially at the pizza joint, so also communicate that you understand people still have wants and needs even in the face of potential danger.

For policymakers, think about your reopening guidelines in terms of each of the four factors. All these stars need to align for people to follow your protective guidelines. One no-masker friend of mine recently joked that he could not get COVID-19 because “he is too ornery.” He is ornery, but of course no less vulnerable to infection than anyone else. Public education about the emerging science of the disease provides clarity about our vulnerability to, and the severity of, COVID-19, which serves as the requisite foundation of any recommended protection measure.

For all of us, now would be a good time to demonstrate an extra measure of empathy toward others. As you go for a walk outdoors, some will stroll by, others will give a wide berth and still others will wait until after dark to avoid any possible interaction with people. Know these differences are not a personal attack, but rather they reflect natural differences in the mental calculus that people have undertaken as they try to navigate their personal response to the pandemic.


Brian Connelly is a professor of management and the Luck Eminent Scholar in Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business. He is editor-elect of the Journal of Management and has published in journals such as the Strategic Management Journal, Organization Science, Global Strategy Journal, Strategic Organization and the Journal of Management Studies. His work is often cited in media outlets, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.

This story originally appeared on Auburn University’s website.

Republished with the permission of the Alabama NewsCenter.