Shopping in Corona time: ‘We’ll take it for a while’

Behavioral psychologist Inge Merkelbach always has a mouth mask in her bag. She puts them on in shops. She is often the only one in the Spangen district of Rotterdam where she lives. That feels uncomfortable. Now we are in the city center, right next to the Bijenkorf. In the shops, all staff wear masks and customers are requested to do the same. Merkelbach: “Here it feels crazy again not to put the cap on.”

Analyzing human behavior and looking at how you can influence it is especially important in the corona pandemic. Merkelbach and fellow behavioral psychologists at Erasmus University in Rotterdam have been busy in recent months: “How do you get people to follow the measures?”

We walk from the Bijenkorf to the Lijnbaan. On the other side of the tram track, the line for the Starbucks is even longer than the line for the Bijenkorf. It is Saturday afternoon and very busy. People zigzag around each other. A diverse audience walks here: groups of young people, couples, the elderly and many families. The 1.5 meter distance is continuously exceeded.

Merkelbach is not surprised by the crowds. “Shopping is one of the few forms of time spent that is still allowed. Moreover, the weather is now more chilly than during the first wave in the spring, so people will have less inclination to go for a walk on the beach. They also think: there might be a total lockdown soon. We’ll take it for a while. ”

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But do they take for granted that they can become so infected? Merkelbach: “It is very human to think: it is others who can become infected. That does not happen to me. Just like smokers often think that other smokers are getting sick. Not herself. We call this the optimism bias. This will change when people in the vicinity become infected and become seriously ill. Then the danger is suddenly more real. That is why you not only see young people who don’t take the rules too closely, but also older people. Anyone can suffer from that optimism bias. There are also young people and the elderly who take the rules very seriously. ”


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As we walk towards the Lijnbaan, Merkelbach explains the term ‘temporal discounting’. “We are more sensitive to rewards we receive now than to rewards in the future. This is even more true if we do not know when we will receive that reward in the future. So that we will one day be able to enjoy more freedom once the virus is under control again is too vague and too far away to let go of all kinds of nice things for that. ”

In order to persuade people to comply with the measures, they must at least be aware of them, Merkelbach says. She points to the signs, the red stripes on the ground, the arrows on the tiles. And to the young people in green jackets with ‘Rotterdam Center’ on the back, who point the shoppers in the right walking direction. “This is good,” she says. “The rules are told in different ways. If you only put up a sign, people will soon not see it anymore. ”

“You have to ‘nudge’; tempting people to display the right behavior. ”

Municipalities and governments tend to provide a lot of information. But that alone is not enough, Merkelbach says. You also have to ‘nudge’; enticing people to engage in the correct behavior. This can be done, for example, by using ‘role models’ who set a good example.

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Since everyone has different role models, they must be different people. Influencers, salespeople in stores, all authorities, people who enjoy respect in different communities. “Because there are so many different Rotterdammers who allow themselves to be influenced in a different way, there is none one size fits all communication. The municipality must differentiate. ”

Wobble phase

We have arrived at the Binnenwegplein. Here Rotterdammers eat fries on the many benches. There the 1.5 meters is taken into account. People are creatures of habit, Merkelbach says. “You can see it now not done is to sit next to each other on a bench. Just like that, few people try to shake hands or kiss someone on the cheek in greeting. ” She smiles. “If wearing a mouth mask becomes mandatory, you first get a wobble phase, people who forget or don’t want to do it. But after a while everyone wears it. It can be learned. ”

The municipality of Rotterdam uses the knowledge of behavioral scientists from Erasmus University. And it would be good, Merkelbach says, if the national government did the same. “In addition to doctors, the Outbreak Management Team also includes real behavioral psychologists. Precisely because we have to tackle the virus with adapted behavior. ”

Rotterdam policymakers and scientists consult in the Behavioral Insights Group Rotterdam (Big’R). For example, the behavioral psychologists advised how best to communicate the five-foot rules at municipal locations. To answer such a question, the behavior of the people at the location in question is observed and analyzed and interviews are conducted. It turned out that communication at the town hall, where marriages are concluded, can best be cheerful, with a joke. In the workplace this should be more serious.

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Video calling

Now the behavioral psychologists for the municipality are researching general practitioner care in corona times. How do patients experience video calling consultations? Are they well taken care of when operations are postponed? Most people understand that healthcare now looks slightly different, it turns out. But there are also problems. For some complaints and patients, video calling is not a good substitute for a visit to the doctor. In addition, there are patients who no longer call their GP. They think that the GP is too busy or are afraid of becoming infected. Merkelbach: “That can be dangerous. The long-term health outcomes of people with chronic diseases remain to be seen. ”

We walk back over the Lijnbaan. There is a line outside for all popular shops. In front of a large clothing store, a cheerful security guard has a chat with the waiting customers. The youngsters in green jackets are pointing. The crowd obediently deflects, but not everyone. “I have to go to the Albert Heijn”, a man shouts pissed off. The duo kindly gestures that he has to take a short detour.

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