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How Eeyorism and contrarianism undermined public health messaging on COVID

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Zeynep Tufecki has a very good piece about the failures in official discourse surrounding COVID-19, and in particular the messaging that has consistently downplayed the effectiveness of vaccines that eliminate virtually all risk of severe illness or death and also substantially reduce transmission of the virus:

The problem is not that the good news isn’t being reported, or that we should throw caution to the wind just yet. It’s that neither the reporting nor the public-health messaging has reflected the truly amazing reality of these vaccines. There is nothing wrong with realism and caution, but effective communication requires a sense of proportion—distinguishing between due alarm and alarmism; warranted, measured caution and doombait; worst-case scenarios and claims of impending catastrophe. We need to be able to celebrate profoundly positive news while noting the work that still lies ahead. However, instead of balanced optimism since the launch of the vaccines, the public has been offered a lot of misguided fretting over new virus variants, subjected to misleading debates about the inferiority of certain vaccines, and presented with long lists of things vaccinated people still cannot do, while media outlets wonder whether the pandemic will ever end.

This pessimism is sapping people of energy to get through the winter, and the rest of this pandemic. Anti-vaccination groups and those opposing the current public-health measures have been vigorously amplifying the pessimistic messages—especially the idea that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean being able to do more—telling their audiences that there is no point in compliance, or in eventual vaccination, because it will not lead to any positive changes. They are using the moment and the messaging to deepen mistrust of public-health authorities, accusing them of moving the goalposts and implying that we’re being conned. Either the vaccines aren’t as good as claimed, they suggest, or the real goal of pandemic-safety measures is to control the public, not the virus.

The point about the overhyping of the threat posed by variants is a really important one. The worst-case-scenario framing of new variants that has generally not panned out on further inspection out makes for a telling contrast with the consistent underplaying of emerging evidence that the vaccine substantially reduces transmission of the virus. There is a superficially persuasive logic to the Eeyoreism — being pessimistic about the new strains and the positive effects of the vaccine alike could theoretically make people more likely to adhere to protective measures. Only it’s pretty clearly not working — most jurisdictions in the country are opening up or were already there, while reluctance to take the vaccine remains a major problem. A more measured approach to both potentially negative and positive developments seems a lot better. And until vaccines become widely available “continue to mask and social distance, and don’t dine out even if your local jurisdiction has made the misguided decision to permit it” remains the right message, whether variants have a material effect or not.

In general, the a critical lesson seems to be that on net being straight with the public is better than galaxy-brained “time for some game theory” messages that try to outsmart people rather than just giving them accurate information about what makes them safer:

One of the most important problems undermining the pandemic response has been the mistrust and paternalism that some public-health agencies and experts have exhibited toward the public. A key reason for this stance seems to be that some experts feared that people would respond to something that increased their safety—such as masks, rapid tests, or vaccines—by behaving recklessly. They worried that a heightened sense of safety would lead members of the public to take risks that would not just undermine any gains, but reverse them.

The theory that things that improve our safety might provide a false sense of security and lead to reckless behavior is attractive—it’s contrarian and clever, and fits the “here’s something surprising we smart folks thought about” mold that appeals to, well, people who think of themselves as smart. Unsurprisingly, such fears have greeted efforts to persuade the public to adopt almost every advance in safety, including seat belts, helmets, and condoms.

But time and again, the numbers tell a different story: Even if safety improvements cause a few people to behave recklessly, the benefits overwhelm the ill effects. In any case, most people are already interested in staying safe from a dangerous pathogen. Further, even at the beginning of the pandemic, sociological theory predicted that wearing masks would be associated with increased adherence to other precautionary measures—people interested in staying safe are interested in staying safe—and empirical research quickly confirmed exactly that. Unfortunately, though, the theory of risk compensation—and its implicit assumptions—continue to haunt our approach, in part because there hasn’t been a reckoning with the initial missteps.

To echo Ricky Roma’s dictum, tell the truth: it’s the easiest thing to remember.

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