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Editorial: Why we are more cautious when there's light at the end of the tunnel
End of the tunnel?

Editorial: Why we are more cautious when there's light at the end of the tunnel

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Misti Schaefer, with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps, gave a COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-thru event outside the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries building on Saturday.

After a year in which good news has been hard to come by, recent developments on the pandemic front are bound to elicit more joy than the coming arrival of spring. The availability of effective vaccines tops the list of good news.

Another dose of good news is that, along with continuing mask use, there has been an uptick in the number of people staying home and avoiding restaurants, and a reduction in gatherings of 10 or more people in much of the United States that began in mid-November, according to data tracking by University of Southern California.

It seems that a technological breakthrough has been met by an improvement in human behavior among a wide swath of the U.S. population (young people on spring break being one apparent exception).

Why did many people who initially were reluctant to follow COVID-19 guidelines get on board with the recommendations of health experts? After all, as the COVID-19 vaccines became available, one could have imagined previously noncompliant people becoming even less compliant.

The vaccines could have been considered something of a magic bullet, making preventive measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing seem unnecessary as a defense. People therefore might have been less likely to comply with the inconvenience of those measures. Yet it appears the opposite happened. As soon as vaccine approval appeared imminent, the percentage of the population saying that it was taking precautions increased.

The psychology behind this “near-miss” effect could be harnessed to increase compliance even further. Health officials could encourage this kind of thinking by putting out messages that tell people “a return to your old life is just around the corner.” The closer people feel to an end of this crisis, the more likely they will change their behavior to make that come true.

— Adapted from the Los Angeles Times

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