Nova Scotia

The evolutionary reason why some people avoid following public health orders

DNA may be part of the reason some people disregard public health orders, but people who study behaviour say that doesn't mean change isn't possible.

Amid COVID-19 pandemic, some people are flouting orders by public health officials

Crowds are seen at English Bay in Vancouver on March 20, 2020. Scenes like this one cause consternation for public health officials trying to stop the spread of COVID-19. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau implemented the Quarantine Act, requiring anyone returning to Canada from abroad to stay home for 14 days. Failure to comply can result in fines or arrest.

Too many people, said Trudeau, are still gathering with others or going to stores when they should be home.

"This kind of conduct is not just disappointing, it's dangerous," he said during his daily briefing on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move follows steps already taken by provinces such as Nova Scotia, where failure to self-isolate for 14 days upon return to the province can result in a fine, as can disobeying the chief medical officer of health's order not to gather in crowds of more than five people.

At his Thursday briefing, Premier Stephen McNeil said he was praying for a snowstorm or thunderstorm this weekend in hopes it keeps people at home.

Even with the premier's prayers, it's not been easy to convince everyone of the need to stay home to help minimize the spread of coronavirus, a point driven home by one of Nova Scotia's latest cases possibly being linked to a St. Patrick's Day party on March 14. The event was held when the suggested limit for public gatherings was 150 people and there were no cases of COVID-19 reported in Nova Scotia.

According to a British Columbia-based researcher, one reason some people find it difficult to adhere to such orders, even when presented with compelling evidence such as illness or death, rests in our DNA.

"We are social animals," said Anita DeLongis, a professor in UBC's psychology department.

"In evolutionary terms, it's part of the key to survival of our species, so a government policy or disease isn't going to change what's in our DNA. We are going to seek others."

The hope, said DeLongis, is people seek others online or on the telephone, from the comfort of their homes.

And while people's DNA might not change, their behaviour can. In this case, the best route to change is empathy, said DeLongis, particularly for young people who might not think they are as vulnerable as other parts of the population.

Empty shelves are seen at a Superstore grocery store in Richmond, B.C., on March 17, 2020. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

"People need to feel that there is some benefit not just to themselves, but to others," she said. "That needs to be important to them in order for them to engage in some of these behaviours."

DeLongis said people lacking that kind of perspective tend to be the ones who hoard supplies or aren't concerned about getting sick or the implications getting sick might have for others around them.

'About caring for other people'

Cendri Hutcherson, an assistant professor in the University of Toronto's psychology department and director of the school's decision neuroscience laboratory, agrees.

Hutcherson said people who are naturally empathetic are more likely to evenly weigh how their actions will affect themselves with how their actions will affect others. People who aren't predisposed to think that way sometimes simply aren't paying attention, she said.

In other cases, research in her lab has shown that when people begin to attend to the welfare of others, they value it to a certain extent.

That's why clear messaging becomes crucial to bringing about a change in behaviour, she said.

"The biggest thing we could be doing is really emphasizing in our messaging that a huge portion of the reason to stay home is not selfish, it's about honouring our obligations to other people, about caring for other people, about emphasizing the risk to other people," she said.

This has been the approach Trudeau and McNeil have used during their daily briefings, taking on an almost paternal tone as they've implored people to think of their neighbours, help where they can, but stay home or close to their property as much as possible.

DeLongis, who has spent 40 years studying stress and how it affects people in a variety of circumstances, is currently running a study to track over time how people are behaving and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in the hopes of getting a sense of what does and doesn't work when it comes to changing behaviour.

Although her lab on campus was recently shut down as a precaution, DeLongis and her team have continued to work online. So far, they've had about 3,000 participants and they're getting about 500 people a day.

At his daily COVID-19 press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken on an almost paternal tone to get his message of social distancing across. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"People are really supportive of the study, have been expressing a lot of interest [and] sharing with us their experiences," said DeLongis.

That includes what's causing them stress, sources of frustration and where they're getting sources of joy.

Public health officials and politicians continue to hope those sources of joy are based at home.