A psychologist's case for why 'social-distancing shaming' is useless

Before healthcare leaders give in to temptation to partake in social-distancing shaming, consider directing that energy toward institutions — not neighbors.  

"Individuals are being asked to decide for themselves what chances they should take, but a century of research on human cognition shows that people are bad at assessing risk in complex situations," Tess Wilkinson-Ryan, PhD, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, writes for The Atlantic.

If people visit a bar or restaurant, for instance, it is not indicative of a moral failing. Instead, it is a lack of leadership that has left individuals with no choice but to make fraught decisions in highly complex situations on their own. 

"During a disease outbreak, vague guidance and ambivalent behavioral norms will lead to thoroughly flawed thinking. If a business is open but you would be foolish to visit it, that is a failure of leadership," as Dr. Wilkinson-Ryan puts it.

She says social-distancing shaming is useless, if not harmful, to society — even when those doing the shaming have an accurate read on the risk-benefit ratio. Instead, focus that indignation toward officials, institutions and people in power whose decisions, or lack thereof, leave citizens and neighbors in these dilemmas. 

"It is too easy to focus on people making bad choices rather than on people having bad choices," writes Dr. Wilkinson-Ryan. "People should practice humility regarding the former and voice outrage about the latter."

For shaming to add any value to a public health cause, it ought to be saved for instances when clear, official guidance is overtly resisted, such as refusing to wear a mask in a business that requires face coverings. 

Otherwise, set your sights on the ways institutions are letting people down, not the resulting cases of flawed judgment demonstrated by people, Dr. Wilkinson-Ryan urges. "America's half-hearted reopening is a psychological morass, a setup for defeat that will be easy to blame on irresponsible individuals while culpable institutions evade scrutiny."

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