‘Americans don't like being told what to do’: Why social distancing is tough

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A mural in Santa Monica encourages social distancing. It says, “Love is standing six-feet apart.” April 5, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta.

This is the state’s third week under COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, and many Californians are getting used to a life of social distancing. But it’s unclear how effective physical distancing has been since its implementation in March.

On today’s Daily Dose, Dr. Michael Wilkes, a professor of medicine and global health at UC Davis, explains why social distancing is difficult to abide by, and what kind of impact it’s had so far. 

In comparison to the East Coast, and especially New York and New Jersey, California’s COVID-19 outbreaks have been relatively stable, Wilkes says. But so far, the reason is unclear. 

He says that preliminary data from China and South Korea might suggest that the approach works, but it took several months for health officials to get that information. 

Why is a behavioral change like social distancing difficult to follow?  

Wilkes says social distancing is a lifestyle change like losing weight or quitting smoking.

“Social isolation is even harder because we're humans, and we are social creatures. We've actually evolved because we function best together. Coronavirus requires that we suppress our profoundly human and evolutionarily hardwired impulses for connection,” he says. “Seeing our friends and getting together in groups and touching each other are things that we do.”

American culture also plays a role here. “Americans value independence and individualism. ... Americans don't like being told what to do,” he says. “Those countries that are really beating us badly at social isolation place much higher values on interdependence. Americans think of ‘I,’ whereas South Korea or Germany think of ‘we’ or ‘us.’ ”

Social distancing might continue for a while. How can we make it easier?  

Changing behaviors usually takes multiple steps , Wilkes says. 

It begins with pre-contemplation, where folks think about whether they need to change, and whether they even want to. 

The most important step is continuing the new behavior, and technology can help us stay committed, Wilkes says. Phone calls, push notifications, the news, social media can serve reminders to social distance.

Then there’s the role of face-to-face support. “An awkward conversation held through the door, [or] an offer to run errands or pick up some eggs … just that soft touch once a day or something as you're walking down the hall — it is very important,” Wilkes says.




Chery Glaser