Model, don't shame, when people fail to follow COVID-19 advice, experts say

In the event of a crisis, people have the power to influence others for good or bad. A Winnipeg psychologist believes people should take it upon themselves to model or encourage positive behaviour.

'I think forcing people can often kind of have the opposite effect,' says clinical psychologist

Rehman Abdulrehman says the COVID-19 pandemic can be an opportunity for people to model positive behaviour, like caring for neighbours, practising social distancing and good hygiene. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

Amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, panicked consumers cleaned stores out of toilet paper and filled their cupboards and pantries with dried and canned goods.

Dr. Rehman Abdulrehman, a clinical and consulting psychologist in Winnipeg, said that's because people tend to follow the example of others — so when some shoppers start to snap up an item like toilet paper, others sometimes follow suit.

"I will confess, when I was at the grocery store, I [didn't] think I needed a lot. But because there wasn't a lot on the shelf, I bought three packages. And so it wasn't that I actually needed them, but we tend to follow suit with what we see," he said.

"But we can use that proactively in a more functional way to help people."

In the event of a crisis, people have the power to influence others for better or worse, and Abdulrehman suggests people should take it upon themselves to model or encourage positive behaviours.

That could be posting about the importance of social distancing and hand-washing on social media, encouraging people to do those things through phone or video conversations, or offering help to neighbours who need it.

Shelves that were once full of toilet paper and sanitary wipes had only a few packages of wipes left on the evening of March 12 at a Safeway in Winnipeg. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

To encourage positive messaging, the World Health Organization has a number of downloadable pictures designed for social media to help people share messages approved by public health experts.

One Winnipeg resident is going much further to model positive behaviour.

The World Health Organization has downloadable images that promote healthy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. (World Health Organization)

Amber Pohl created a Google spreadsheet as part of the Facebook group Norwood Neighbours COVID-19 Assistance, where people can indicate services they can offer during the outbreak, including child care or running errands.

"I thought it was a really obvious way that neighbours can connect," Pohl said. "It can help alleviate the burden on people."

How to model effectively 

What Pohl and others around the city are doing is effectively modelling healthy behaviour in a crisis scenario, according to Abdulrehman.

"One of the ways to do that is to set your own boundaries," he said. "People will naturally follow suit. If people can hear you out versus feeling forced, they're more likely to carry it. I think forcing people can often kind of have the opposite effect." 

Abdulrehman says that's because people are already feeling stress over the pandemic.

"There's going to be enough messages out there that are going to promote a sense of panic and worry. I think we have to make an effort to promote more healthy perspectives."

A Winnipeg psychologist says it's important to model healthy behaviour like hand-washing, social distancing and community support, rather than being forceful. (Darin Morash/CBC)

He also cautions people not to get too overwhelmed with the news about the pandemic and to care for their mental health.

"We want people to engage in healthy behaviour, but we don't want them to become so panicked that the behaviour is becoming excessive."

A public health expert says this kind of modelling is important.

Dr. Kelly MacDonald, the head of the section of infectious disease in the department of internal medicine for the University of Manitoba and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, says some people feel they're healthy, not realizing they could be a carrier.

"What you have to do is find a way to override that sense of personal invincibility," she said. 

"Explain to them that the numbers are such that even if they have a very low chance of getting sick and only infecting one person … the downstream numbers of people that could get infected from that could be in the hundreds — and those people could be immuno-suppressed."

MacDonald says in crises like this, people play an important role in holding their friends, family and people in their sphere of influence accountable.

"There are ways one step less of shaming to not endorse that kind of behaviour."