A lot of Americans aren’t taking Covid-19 seriously. They aren’t wearing masks. They aren’t social distancing. They aren’t staying home.

That’s one reason that the number of cases is spiking in the south and west. The problem is especially serious in Florida, Arizona, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Tennessee and Texas, which are reporting the highest numbers of hospitalisations since the coronavirus pandemic started spreading across the US in March.

The result is likely to be many thousands of preventable deaths.

Why are so many people refusing to take precautions? A key reason is their sense of their identity — their understanding of what kind of person they are, and of the groups with whom they are affiliated. It follows that appeals to adopt responsible practices are unlikely to work unless they take group identity into account.

An alarming example: In Alabama, college students have been holding “Covid-19 parties,” including people who are infected and intentionally designed to see who else can catch the virus first.

In the last decades, behavioural science has drawn attention to the immense importance of personal identity in motivating behaviour. A central idea, pressed by Dan Kahan, a law and psychology professor at Yale University, is that people’s beliefs and understandings are often “identity-protective.”

With respect to some risks — such as those posed by climate change, nuclear power and gun violence — people’s judgments about whether a danger is high or low are deeply influenced by their understanding of the group, or tribe, to which they belong.

People ask, “Am I the sort of person who thinks and does this, or not?” The answer to that question can be decisive.

Tragically, that’s become true of Covid-19. If you think of yourself as someone who rejects elite prescriptions about how you should live your life, and if you consider yourself part of a group that defies national nannies, you might be proud to go about your business, just as you did six months ago.

What can be done? We can find terrific lessons from the great state of Texas and an ingenious environmental campaign that started there in 1985.

In that year, Texas faced a problem. It was dealing with a great deal of littering on the highways, roads and elsewhere. A public relations campaign to reduce littering did not seem promising. In some states, officials were drawn to an old jingle: “Litterbug, litterbug/Shame on you/Look at the terrible things you do.” To say the least, that was unlikely to work in Texas.

The challenge was to do something that would make the anti-littering campaign fit with Texans’ identity, rather than seem antithetical to it, a high-handed imposition from people with foreign accents.

The solution began with a slogan: “Don’t mess with Texas.” The slogan suggested that littering was an insult to the state and those who cherish it. It turned Texan identity, and a sense of local pride, into a reason not to litter — and a reason to dislike and deter those who do.

“Don’t mess with Texas” became the foundation of something much more than a slogan. For over 30 years, it has been a full-scale campaign, including endorsements by trusted celebrities such as Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Matthew McConaughey and LeAnn Rimes. By all accounts, it has been exceptionally successful, producing substantial reductions in littering.

For Covid-19, the problem is straightforward: many Americans regard wearing masks, social distancing and the like as a capitulation to some “other” — creepy, self-appointed experts who don’t know what they are talking about. In states that have not gotten Covid-19 under control, the meaning of precautions has to be made to shift. It must fit with people’s local identity and their sense of pride.

A possible example: Tennessee is known as the Volunteer State, a term that came from the War of 1812, when many of its citizens volunteered to protect their nation. You could imagine a campaign against Covid-19 that invoked that idea. And in Texas itself, the “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign could be adapted to the fight against the virus.

As that campaign shows, it is also important to find surprising validators, trusted people who would not be expected to call for the relevant precautions. They might be local politicians, admired by and believable to the very people who are refusing to take those precautions, or celebrities who are similarly credible.

When people change their behaviour, it is often because the change conforms to, or at least doesn’t compromise, their sense of who they are. Too many Americans are getting sick and dying because precautions against Covid-19 have violated their self-understandings.

Stop messing with the US. Leaders, both large and small, need to tackle the problem now.


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