Policy Design For Human Behaviour

Policies are meant to guide human behaviour and introduce constraints at a collective level and that means understanding how humans behave.

On March 21st the Canadian province of Ontario (where I live) will no longer require people to wear masks while indoors. This is part of a growing trend toward the easing of COVID-related pandemic restrictions. The hope is that, assuming COVID-19 does not spring back with another more virulent or harmful variant, we will eventually go back to having no more need for these policies.

That masks are coming off is a good sign. What is less clear is exactly when and there is much debate over whether it is the right time to lift the mask policies over others (e.g., social distancing, capacity limits, etc..). Masks are effective, low-barrier, and accessible strategies for reducing infection. They also present problems for communication, are awkward and reduce some of the human qualities of our face-to-face interactions.

This is not about the for- or against- for masks. It’s about how policies and real human behaviour work together.

Time and Chance

Mask mandates were adopted to help reduce the collective risk of transmission of a virus and the subsequent effects on the healthcare system. This is meant to account for individual risk assessment and override that. It’s why we have things like speed limits and regulations for how equipment must be maintained: individual judgement isn’t helpful when it comes to behaviour that can harm people.

At this point in the pandemic, the risk of COVID-19 to individuals and groups is less clear than it was even a few months ago.

Which brings me to mask removals. The moment that the government in Ontario signalled that it was looking to remove mask mandates it told people that masks are no longer necessary in the near future. What many people will hear (by choice) is that masks are no longer necessary because things are alright now.

The result is that people are starting to take masks off ahead of the March 21st deadline. I’m pretty sure that this is something that has been seen in every jurisdiction that has removed mask mandates. Time and chance are coming together. People are seeing time as relative and chance (of getting infected, of having a severe infection if infected, and getting fined for not wearing a mask) as all low.

As more people remover their masks, the more likely others will, too. This is culture shaping. Culture is about norms and the norms of the situation are changing. These things don’t change easily overnight, they change day-by-day. Thus, people — given the time and chance — will seek to change in the same way. The leaders are those who seek to shed their masks early.

Leadership of Many Stripes

Some, like me, are not as enthralled by having random people lead this change by arbitrary decision-making over sound policy planning. But I sympathize. I don’t think leaders are all that interested in foisting more regulations on people and I know firsthand that the fatigue of regulation enforcement is also high.

The evidence that we are likely to forget the lessons of COVID and potentially step into a hole is still high. I can also relate to the desire to ditch masks. As things open up more, I’ve come to realize more of what’s past us by. I am ready to get more social and more ‘normal’ and enjoy life. But, I also know the risks inherent in the COVID-19 virus and it doesn’t care what I think or want.

Our leaders would be wise to consider this in making decisions. Whether I agree or not with the policy, I can say that the behaviour of people was not surprising. The implementation of policies and their effects are guided much by a theory of change rooted in rational behaviour. If my fellow citizens have responded to a rule so far, they will continue to do so. Right? No.

Pent up frustration and fatigue are drivers of behaviour. People have little energy for more restrictions and all the cognitive energy it requires to maintain this. It doesn’t surprise me that this is happening — it’s a very human thing.

I see leadership as recognizing these qualities in others and as effects of policy-making. If I want people to adhere to a policy, I need to consider both the emotional and rational aspects to behaviour. That is policy design for humans, not just citizens.

Photo by Adam NieĊ›cioruk on Unsplash

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