Selected Links: The Behavioral Side of the Coronavirus (Updated: April 20, 2020)

The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11th. Health care professionals, scientists, and policymakers are racing against the clock to slow the spread of the disease.

A key feature of the response has focused on our behavior—including our handwashing habits, panic buying, and our ability to (or lack thereof) to social distance. There are also the social and economic implications of banning travel, closing schools and restaurants, working from home (if that’s an option), and the absence of paid sick leave. 

Here we will curate selected articles that help shed light on the behavioral features of the coronavirus pandemic. It will be updated regularly. If you have a suggestion, please email our editorial team at or reply to this thread on Twitter.

April 20, 2020

This week’s list features several articles on how countries might begin to reopen effectively—though the push to do so must contend with the fact that deaths continue to rise and testing stagnates. The list also includes articles on the ethics of choosing who lives and who dies, and Cass Sunstein weighs in on the way anchoring may influence our judgements of how successful the response is/was. Our managing editor Elizabeth Weingarten shares 20 novel questions that can help you liven up your coronavirus conversations. Lastly, a group of behavioral scientists from the U.K. shares their vision for how the field can better respond in crisis situations. 
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

What Is a ‘Very Good Job’ on Coronavirus Deaths?
Cass R. Sunstein

“If the anchor is 2.2 million deaths from the coronavirus—if that’s what could have happened—then 200,000 might look like a spectacular achievement. After all, two million deaths have been prevented. 

“If the anchor is 56,000—the approximate number of Americans who die from the flu each year—then that same 200,000 figure looks really bad. 

“And if the anchor is lower than 56,000—perhaps the number if the U.S. government had responded promptly and aggressively—then 100,000 deaths is a catastrophic failure.

“The lesson is simple. Don’t be fooled by anchors.”

Why Did The World Shut Down For COVID-19 But Not Ebola, SARS Or Swine Flu?
By Kaleigh Rogers

Wondering why COVID-19 forced much of the world into quarantine but other disease outbreaks didn’t? This article explains why. It’s a combination of how easy diseases spread, how deadly they are, and how easily we can contract the disease. 

Experts Race to Set Rules For Deciding Who Lives and Who Dies
By Jyoti Madhusoodanan

“Health care providers in Italy, Spain, and possibly elsewhere, have had to make grim, battlefield decisions over who gets a ventilator or an intensive-care bed, and who does not…It’s a bleak scenario that other nations, including the U.S., may soon face…That has experts in bioethics now racing to provide clear, ethical, and equitable guidance should health care teams have to make a life-and-death call regarding the allocation of care and equipment.”

Coronavirus Advice From Abroad: 7 Lessons America’s Governors Should Not Ignore as They Reopen Their Economies
By Stephen Engelberg, Caroline Chen and Sebastian Rotella

In the United States, deaths have passed 40,000 and continue to rise. Testing is still a mess. Nevertheless, the conversation around reopening the country is gaining momentum. This piece outlines seven lessons from abroad that governors should consider when deciding when and how to reopen.

Our Pandemic Summer
By Ed Yong
The Atlantic

The Atlantic’s fantastic science journalist Ed Yong also weighed in on how the U.S. might reopen in a thorough and insightful piece: 

“The pandemic is not a hurricane or a wildfire. It is not comparable to Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Such disasters are confined in time and space. The SARS-CoV-2 virus will linger through the year and across the world. ‘Everyone wants to know when this will end,’ said Devi Sridhar, a public-health expert at the University of Edinburgh. ‘That’s not the right question. The right question is: How do we continue?’”

20 Questions to Ask Instead of “How Are You Doing Right Now?”
By Elizabeth Weingarten

Have you found yourself having the same coronavirus conversations over and over. Our managing editor Elizabeth Weingarten offered up a series of questions that could help you break the mold, including:

  • What habit have you started, or broken, during the quarantine?
  • Which specific place in your neighborhood are you most looking forward to visiting once this is all over?
  • What are some things you have realized that you don’t really need?

“When we keep asking the same question, or no questions at all, we lose out on a chance for deeper connections with our conversation partners, who also happen to be the people we care most about. We are tricked into believing we know how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking, when we haven’t even scratched the surface.”

Crisis Knowledge Management: Reconfiguring the Behavioural Science Community for Rapid Responding in the Covid-19 Crisis
By Ulrike Hahn, David Lagnado, Stephan Lewandowsky, and Nick Chater

Several of the authors of the open-letter to the U.K. Government that questioned the behavioral fatigue approach (as explained in their op-ed for the Behavioral Scientist) have drafted a preprint that outlines how the field must adapt in order to contribute effectively to crisis situations. (In addition to their preprint linked above, you can find a summary of the main points here.) As part of that effort, they’ve developed a forum for behavioral scientists to weigh in on how the field can improve its crisis management response. This includes a twitter account (@SciBeh) and three subreddits to help collect and coordinate ideas, as explained in the summary: 

  • r/BehSciResearch for discussion of research, ideas, study designs, and post-publication critique. (Visible to anyone but posting only by members who join and are recognized as experts.)
  • r/BehSciMeta for discussion about how to reshape the scientific process. (Visible to anyone but posting only by members who join and are recognized as experts.)
  • r/BehSciAsk a query forum for researchers, policy makers and journalists. Any member of the public can post questions.”

April 13, 2020

Selected links from this past week, including a look at Sweden’s response, the narratives that may emerge after coronavirus, and how the media lags behind public perceptions of the economy.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

Media Coverage Doesn’t Actually Determine Public Opinion On The Economy
By Dan Hopkins

In this piece, political scientist Dan Hopkins asks: “In a country as large and diverse as the U.S., how do citizens know whether the economy is doing better or worse?” Many of us may think that media coverage is driving public opinion of the economy. However, in his research, Hopkins finds that coverage typically lags behind public sentiment. “It’s easy to pick up a newspaper and assume that its writers and editors can shape public opinion, but that doesn’t seem to be true of the economy. Rather, the public reacts to real-world economic conditions, not media spin.” (Disclosure: Dan Hopkins is a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s Advisory Board.)

The Invisible Killers
By Edoardo Campanella
Project Syndicate

Part book review part history lesson, this piece details some of the arrogance of the 20th century regarding infectious diseases—epitomized by the U.S. surgeon general, William H. Stewart, who proclaimed to Congress “that it was time ‘to close the books on infectious diseases’ and ‘declare the war against pestilence won.’”

This passage also stuck out to me: “Far from being the exclusive preserve of ‘backward’ societies, deadly disease outbreaks are, if anything, a negative byproduct of human progress. By altering ecosystems and erasing natural frontiers, humans have continuously exposed themselves to germs, viruses, and bacteria that evolve to exploit their vulnerabilities. The push of economic development has brought more opportunities for humans and animals to intermingle, and globe-spanning trade has established new routes for the propagation of disease.”

3 articles on Sweden’s response

Is Sweden’s Lax Approach to the Coronavirus Backfiring?
By Paulina Neuding and Tino Sanandaji
The Washington Post

Speaking of arrogance—that may be one way to look at the Swedish response to coronavirus. 

“When asked why Sweden’s strategy deviates from other countries’, Sweden’s influential former state epidemiologist Johan Giesecke quipped, ‘That is because everyone else is doing it wrong.’ It’s of course too early to tell if Sweden’s response has been arrogant, nonchalant, or wise. But as time, passes they’re not doing well compared to neighboring countries. 

Sweden’s Government Has Tried a Risky Coronavirus Strategy. It Could Backfire.
By Alex Ward

The world seems to have its eye on the country, but its citizens aren’t sure they want to be the “world’s guinea pigs.” “‘I didn’t sign my informed consent for this experiment,’ virologist Cecilia Söderberg-Nauclér of the Karolinska Institute, a medical research center near Stockholm, told me. ‘I don’t know if [my family and I] can stay in a country that is not protecting its population.’”

Sweden’s Top Epidemiologist Explains His Country’s Radical Pandemic Policies
By David Stavrou

What’s the thinking behind Sweden’s approach? This piece features a Q&A with the country’s top epidemiologist. On the issue of herd immunity: 

Are you trying to reach a point of ‘herd immunity’?

“We are not trying to achieve herd immunity, but to slow the virus’ spread. At the same time, the majority of the experts agree that the virus will stop only when widespread immunity is achieved or an effective vaccine is developed. Those are the only means by which to stop the virus. Every other solution is temporary.”

So herd immunity is not the goal of the strategy, but a kind of byproduct that you are hoping to attain?


Time Is Meaningless Now
By Shayla Love

An interesting look at how the experience of time has shifted for some during the pandemic, with nods to a handful of studies on how we perceive time and what we can do to bend it in psychologically helpful ways.

The Coming Battle for the COVID-19 Narrative
By Samuel Bowles and Wendy Carlin

“The struggle for the COVID-19 narrative need not rehearse the “more government versus more market” battle lines…The COVID-19 narrative that emerges in the aftermath of the pandemic will have to embrace three truths. First, there is no way that government—however well organised and professional – can address challenges like this pandemic without a civic-minded citizenry that trusts the public health advice of its government and is committed to the rule of law. Second, people facing extraordinary risks and costs have indeed acted with generosity and trust on a massive scale. And third, the fact that the individualistic and self-interested depiction of people in economics has been shown to be wildly inaccurate may also be a cause for alarm: people may care about others in negative as well as positive ways. The frightening upsurge of xenophobic attacks is a warning.”

Evaluating COVID-19 Public Health Messaging in Italy: Self-Reported Compliance and Growing Mental Health Concerns
By Soubhik Barari et al.

Findings from a working paper on public health communication in Italy: “(1) Public health messaging is being heard. Except for slightly lower compliance among young adults, all subgroups we studied understand how to keep themselves and others safe from the SARS-Cov-2 virus. Remarkably, even those who do not trust the government, or think the government has been untruthful about the crisis believe the messaging and claim to be acting in accordance. (2) The quarantine is beginning to have serious negative effects on the population’s mental health.”

April 6, 2020

In today’s update, Cass Sunstein talks about the sludge reduction efforts happening in government and organizations, Michael Lewis sniffs out a story on coronavirus risk-management, and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz digs into search data to learn more about the virus and its symptoms. There’s also a preprint research paper on the spread of false information on social media.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

The War on Coronavirus Is Also a War on Paperwork
By Cass R. Sunstein

“In the last weeks, the war on sludge has been impressive, but it’s sporadic, and it’s in its early stages…If we want to help people survive economically, or get medical help to them, public officials should be eager to simplify, to waive onerous requirements, and to make economic or other assistance automatic. Sludge removal might not seem like the highest priority, but it can make the difference between relative comfort and acute hardship – or even life and death.”

A Coronavirus Fix That Passes the Smell Test
By Michael Lewis

I am not sure the idea in this article does pass my smell test, but it’s certainly an interesting one. Michael Lewis tells the story of a former Wall Street risk-management specialist who is keen on documenting the loss of smell, a symptom of the coronavirus, in a world-wide database. It’s admittedly a crude metric, but with a lack of testing it may be a way to identify cases before it’s too late.

Google Searches Can Help Us Find Emerging Covid-19 Outbreaks
By Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
The New York Times

An interesting read on how understanding search data could help us figure out where and when virus outbreaks occur, as well as the symptoms of the disease. The author of this piece thinks he may have uncovered a new one—eye pain. 

Fighting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media: Experimental Evidence for a Scalable Accuracy Nudge Intervention (Preprint)
By Gordon Pennycook, Jonathon McPhetres, Yunhao Zhang, and David Rand

“Our results—which mirror those found previously for political fake news—suggest that nudging people to think about accuracy is a simple way to improve choices about what to share on social media. Accuracy nudges are straightforward for social media platforms to implement on top of the other approaches they are currently employing, and could have an immediate positive impact on stemming the tide of misinformation about the COVID-19 outbreak.”

This post was updated: April 7, 2020.

April 1, 2020

Five articles and links for you today. Each asks a different question. The questions are:

  • Would you volunteer to get the coronavirus?
  • Could social distancing actually help the economy?
  • What should developing countries do to prepare?
  • How should we talk about the coronavirus?
  • What are the ways we can stay connected during quarantine? (Webinar and Q&A tonight)

Would You Volunteer to Get the Coronavirus? Someone May Have a Job for You.
By Antonio Regalado
MIT Technology Review

“First, the youthful volunteers would be subjected to a two-week quarantine to make sure they were virus free. After that, they’d be given the virus and then observed. During the study they would remain isolated in “a secure and comfortable setting.” Doctors could then measure if they had any virus in their throats, and how long it took them to develop any symptoms.”

Social Distancing Won’t Just Save Lives. It Might Be Better for the Economy in the Long Run.
By Dylan Matthews

Is the cure really worse than the disease, as President Trump is fond of saying? Maybe not, points out Dylan Matthews in this piece. He takes a look at recent research by a set of economists (not yet peer-reviewed) that makes the case that places that enacted social distance earlier and for longer in the 1918-19 pandemic didn’t suffer these perceived economic setbacks and rebounded quicker once things returned to normal. Matthews concludes: “That social distancing likely won’t cause a reduction in GDP relative to a scenario where there’s a multimillion-person death toll, as indicated by the 1918 flu paper, makes the case for distancing policies that are much stronger.”

Flattening the COVID-19 Curve in Developing Countries
By Ricardo Hausmann
Project Syndicate

“Even if developing countries want to flatten the curve, they will lack the capacity to do so. If people must choose between a 10% chance of dying if they go to work and assured starvation if they stay at home, they are bound to choose work.”

How to Talk About the Coronavirus
By Liz Neeley
The Atlantic

If you’re like me, coronavirus has found a way to pretty much dominate most of the non-work conversations I have. When talking to friends, family and co-workers, I want to know what the latest news is wherever they are. I implore them to stay inside, if possible. We talk about the recent articles we read and try to make sense of what’s happening and the course it might take. Whether we like it or not, Liz Neeley points out in this piece, “we’re all science communicators now.” Neeley, a veteran science writer and lecturer at Yale shares a series of ideas on how you can communicate effectively, avoid getting dragged into dead-end arguments, and, overall, help yourself and those you care about. 

The Surprising Power of Social Connection: Webinar and Q&A
By Nicholas Epley
Center for Decision Research

“How can we stay emotionally connected while social distancing?” That’s the question social psychologist Nicholas Epley will explore tonight in his webinar via the Center for Decision Research (one of our founding partners) at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. Check-in begins at 5:45pm Central Time (US) and the talk begins at 6:00pm.

March 30, 2020

I am still fascinated by the responses to previous pandemics, so today’s list starts off with an article on how different U.S. cities flattened the curve (or didn’t) during the 1918 pandemic. The next two pieces are economic: What are governments willing to spend to save a life? And, Where the heck did the U.S. get 2 trillion dollars? The final link will hopefully provide a much needed laugh.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

How Some Cities ‘Flattened the Curve’ During the 1918 Flu Pandemic
By Nina Strochlic and Riley D. Champine
National Geographic

This was the most helpful overview I’ve read so far on how different cities in the United States responded to the 1918 flu pandemic—and how they fared. “Cities that ordered social distancing measures sooner and for longer periods usually slowed infections and lowered overall death rates.” The graphs below make me feel like I’m looking into the future—and provide me with motivation to stay home.

Source: National Geographic

What Should The Government Spend To Save A Life?
By Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

It’s morbid to think that a price can be placed on a human life, but the hard truth of crafting policy is that those types of calculations need to be made. This article provided an interesting background on the cost-benefit calculations in policy and how they work in practice. But the piece acknowledges that at a certain point these arguments go out the window.

“‘Let’s say we’re talking about 1 million deaths or 2 million deaths,” [Joseph Aldy, a public policy professor] said. ‘When you think about the economic damage and the damage to families and communities all over the country, I don’t think you need an egghead like me to try to put a price on that. It’s catastrophic.’”

Where Do We Get $2,000,000,000,000?
By Robert Smith and Jacob Goldstein
NPR: Planet Money

“Now is not the time for finely crafted solutions. The economy is in crisis, and Congress is tackling it by doing what they do best: Spending inconceivable amounts of money….On today’s show, we go deep inside the mechanisms to come up with two trillion dollars before the economy collapses. There’s the regular way and the magical way, and this time we’ll need both.”

Astrophysicist Gets Magnets Stuck Up Nose While Inventing Coronavirus Device
By Naaman Zhou
The Guardian

Not behavioral per se, but we could all use a bit of comic relief at the moment—cue astrophysicist Daniel Reardon’s attempt to help gone hilariously wrong. While attempting to make a magnetic device that would detect when we try to touch our face, Reardon managed to get a magnet stuck up his nose. As he tried to get the magnet out with other magnets, his grip slipped, and, well, up the nostril they went. 

March 27, 2020

Three links to send you into your weekend. Mullainathan and Thaler on cutting red tape. The exponential growth of a virus teaches us about climate change. A lit review to inform the coronavirus response. And please be safe and healthy. 
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

To Fight the Coronavirus, Cut the Red Tape
By Sendhil Mullainathan and Richard H. Thaler
The New York Times

Mullainathan and Thaler point to five regulations that they say should be suspended/adjusted during the coronavirus response. Doing so, they argue, will give us more capacity to fight the virus.

  1. Treat medical licenses like driver’s licenses; that is, allow them to cross state lines
  2. Temporarily ban any coronavirus related malpractice lawsuits
  3. Pause patents: “Patents should be briefly suspended for the production of anything deemed necessary to fight this virus.”
  4. Pause privacy too: For example, use smartphone data to track users in order to identify “probable contacts” of someone who gets sick.
  5. Listen: “Open up sites to request comments not on new regulations, but on existing ones that are limiting our ability to fight the virus. Let people on the front lines report the regulations that are hindering them.”

What the Coronavirus Curve Teaches Us About Climate Change
By Howard Kunreuther and Paul Slovic

“If there’s any silver lining in this mess, it’s that the coronavirus pandemic is teaching us a valuable lesson about the perils of ignoring destructive processes—and perhaps even larger, longer-term disasters—that increase exponentially. Even if growth looks mild in the moment—think of the earliest segments on an exponential curve like the red line shown in the illustration above—it will soon enough be severe. In other words, delay is the enemy.”

Using Social and Behavioral Science to Support COVID-19 Pandemic Response
By Jay Van Bavel, Robb Willer, et al.
PsyArXiv Preprints

An interdisciplinary group of social and behavioral scientists drafted a potentially helpful literature review:

“We review foundational work on navigating threats, social and cultural factors, science communication, moral decision-making, leadership, and stress and coping that is relevant to pandemics. In each section, we outline implications for solving public health issues related to COVID-19.”

March 26, 2020

Today is part two of our look at the visuals that are helping tell the story of coronavirus. (You’ll find part one just below today’s entry). Today’s selections: what’s happening in the economy, how politics connects to pandemics, hopefully we don’t break the internet, and having some fun with handwashing.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

3.3 Million Americans Filed For Unemployment Last Week, Almost 5 Times The Record High
By Neil Paine

“Observers knew to brace themselves for historically bad news in Thursday’s unemployment numbers from the Department of Labor. According to data going back to 1967, no previous week had ever seen more than 695,000 people newly filing for unemployment,1 but many analysts expected this week’s number to rise into the millions. Those fears were realized: The DOL report for the week ending March 21 saw a staggering 3.3 million people file initial unemployment insurance claims in the wake of the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic, 4.7 times the previous high.” (For state by state visuals, see this piece in The New York Times.)

Source: FiveThirty Eight, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis

Rishi Sunak Faces Legal Action from Gig Economy Workers
By Robert Booth
The Guardian

Government’s around the world are trying to pass economic relief packages, while they deal with the crush on their health systems. This graph highlights the overlap between the two issues. A limited safety-net compounded by economic inequality means many workers can’t weather an extended break in pay. At the same time, given how the virus spreads, showing up to work sick could be deadly to scores of people. 

Source: The Guardian, Royal Society of Arts and Manufacturing

Red vs. Blue on Coronavirus Concern: The Gap Is Still Big but Closing
By Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy
The New York Times

The New York Times’ Upshot vertical has been producing some of the best data-driven journalism I’ve seen on the coronavirus. This is but one interesting look at the divide between Republican and Democrat views on the virus, something we highlighted earlier on this page (In a Pandemic, Political Polarization Could Kill People). 

Source: The New York Times, Civiqs

Why the Internet (Probably) Won’t Break During the Coronavirus Pandemic
By Adam Clark Estes

“All things told, from January 1 to March 22, internet traffic is up 18 percent in the United States, according to data from the internet performance and security company Cloudflare. That’s not unlike what you might see during the Super Bowl, except that now traffic is staying sky high, day after day.”

Source: Vox, Cloudflare

16 Ways To Promote Handwashing With Behavioral Science
By Aline Holzwarth
This article highlights a slew of behaviorally-informed ways we can keep up our hand hygiene and help others do the same—including how to leverage disgust as well as virtue. The image that popped out to me was courtesy of the handwashing lyrics generator. You can use the graphic below to wash your hands to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”

Source: Forbes, Wash Your Lyrics

March 25, 2020

Today and tomorrow will be all about visuals—the graphics, charts, and data visualizations that help us make sense of the virus itself and its effects on society. Today: how the virus got out, how it spread in South Korea, testing rates in every U.S. state, social distancing by state, and what it might look like if we react too late or let up too soon—lessons from 1918.

If any visuals have caught your eye, let me know via Twitter or email,
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

How the Virus Got Out
By Jin Wu, Weiyi Cai, Derek Watkins and James Glanz
The New York Times

 A remarkable piece that illustrates how the virus spread from Wuhan. “The timing of the outbreak could not have been worse. Hundreds of millions of people were about to travel back to their hometowns for the Lunar New Year.”

Source: The New York Times

The Korean Clusters

For a month South Korea had a handle on the situation. There were no major outbreaks—until patient 31. An informative look at how virus clusters formed in Korea.

Source: Reuters

Live Tracker: How Many Coronavirus Cases Have Been Reported in Each U.S. State?
By Beatrice Jin

Testing, testing, testing. Is this thing on? In a lot of places, the answer is no. The U.S. is lagging on testing, as is much of the world. If you’re curious how your state stacks up among the others, use Politico’s testing and confirmed cases tracker.

Source: Politico

Why Outbreaks Like Coronavirus Spread Exponentially, and How to “Flatten the Curve”
By Harry Stevens
The Washington Post

I shared this article in an earlier installment of “Selected Links,” but I am re-upping here. A great demonstration for how various extremes of social distancing can slow the spread of the virus.

Source: The Washington Post

How Has Your State Reacted to Social Distancing?
By Stuart A. Thompson and Yaryna Serkez
The New York Times

“The smartphone movements capture one major turning point: the weekend of March 14 and 15, by which point many states, including New York, Massachusetts and Illinois, had ordered restaurants and schools to close. By March 16, as the number of confirmed cases surpassed 4,500 nationwide, many parts of the country finally saw significant declines in daily travel. Areas in the South and Midwest have seen fewer coronavirus cases so far and haven’t slowed down as much. Places like Texas, Florida and Louisiana saw drops around 40 percent at the beginning of last week, but those numbers have leveled off even as the number of confirmed cases continues to climb.”

Source: The New York Times

5 Lessons on Social Distancing from the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic
By German Lopez

I mentioned yesterday some of the lessons we might learn from the 1918 Flu epidemic. Philadelphia did not flatten the curve, St. Louis did. It’s morbid to ask, but what city will be Philadelphia this time around? 

Source: Vox, PNAS

But St. Louis wasn’t perfect. They eased up too quickly and saw a spike in cases.

Source: Vox, JAMA

March 24, 2020

An assortment of links today. The first two focus on the 1918 pandemic—Hidden Brain’s episode and Econofact’s memo provide great starting points to learn about what seems like the best case study available. After that: context for why the name of the virus matters, how voting in the U.S. will have to change, the effects of polarization during a pandemic, and how to have compassion during a crisis.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

An Unfinished Lesson: What The 1918 Flu Tells Us About Human Nature
By Shankar Vedantam, Rhaina Cohen, Tara Boyle, and Jennifer Schmidt
NPR: Hidden Brain

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a number of references to the flu pandemic of 1918, but I hadn’t been able to dig in. I finally had a chance to do so via Hidden Brain’s recent episode, which features historian Nancy Bristow, author of American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds Of The 1918 Influenza Epidemic. It’s hard not to see the similarities between then and now, which makes the following figures I learned from the episode concerning: the virus came in three waves, an estimated 50 to 100 million people around the world died including 675,000 Americans, almost 50 percent of American deaths were people aged 20- to 40-years old, and some communities experienced up to a 40 percent mortality rate. The episode weaves in the narratives of people who lived at the time, bringing alive the reality of what it’s like to live through a pandemic. Hopefully we can learn something.

Lessons From the 1918 Flu Pandemic
By Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight

For another nice primer on the 1918 Flu pandemic take a look at this memo from Econofact. “While the death toll of the Spanish flu was extensive, it was not uniform. Factors such as the socioeconomic characteristics of the population, underlying environmental quality, and the response by local governments played a significant role in determining how deadly the outbreak was for specific locations and populations.” I can’t help but think we’re seeing these differences play out in real-time. What will future researchers say about our differing responses across countries and around the world?

Inside the Controversy over ‘the Chinese Virus’
By Sally Satel
National Review

The remedy is easy, critics say: Just call it coronavirus. They’re right. In fact, the profession has been trying to take identity out of diagnosis for a long time. Calling it the Chinese virus goes against a humanizing trend. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized the troubling implications of naming infectious diseases based on their place of origin or ethnic population and advised researchers, scientists, and the media against doing so. Until then, it was common scientific convention to identify bacterial and viral infections by the site of their initial outbreak or discovery.”

The 2020 Election Won’t Look Like Any We’ve Seen Before
By The Editorial Board
The New York Times

Around the U.S. behavioral scientists were gearing with interventions related to this year’s election, with a particular emphasis on helping people vote. The coronavirus has thrown many of those specific plans out the window, but not the task of helping people vote. Here’s an introduction to what voting might look like in November and the factors we need to take into account.

In a Pandemic, Political Polarization Could Kill People
By Jay J. Van Bavel
The Washington Post

“While Democrats across the country have been bracing for the impact of the pandemic, Republicans have been far less concerned. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, conducted March 11 to 13, found that 68 percent of Democrats were worried that someone in their family could catch the virus, compared with just 40 percent of Republicans…There is extensive evidence that we filter and absorb political news through our partisan brains. But there are limits to how far the mind can bend reality to match their partisan affiliation…We may not have reached those limits. But as the pandemic bears down on America and people start to see their friends and family hospitalized with life-threatening illness, you can expect to see the partisan-colored lenses start to clear up.”

How to Mix Compassion and Cooperation into Social Distancing
By David DeSteno
The Los Angeles Times

I’ve already caught myself being short with friends and family on video calls. I’m not mad at them, I’m just frustrated. After a day of work over video chat, socializing with friends via video can end up feeling, well, a lot like work. This piece reminded me that compassion and empathy are going to look different for the next few months. And, that I need to use the tools I have to support and connect with loved ones the best that I can. And let’s face it, without video chat this whole thing would be a hell of a lot tougher.

March 23, 2020

In today’s list, I want to highlight three research-related projects. The first is an international survey related to behavior and well-being during the coronavirus. The second is a real-time database of social science focused coronavirus research. The third asks for your help predicting the spread of the virus. Then, there’s advice from an astronaut on how to survive in isolation, a quote worth pausing for, a Q&A with Dr. Fauci, and a word on how to protect small businesses from economist Sendhil Mullainathan.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

International Survey on Coronavirus

“An international team of researchers from ten different institutions, including Harvard, Cambridge, and Warwick University, among others is collecting survey data on how citizens prepare and cope with the spreading coronavirus.” Participate and share.  

COVID-19 Social Science Research Tracker

“Social scientists have an important role during a pandemic. We can do this much better through cooperation. This international list tracks new research about COVID 19, including published findings, pre-prints, projects underway, and projects at least at proposal stage.” You’ll find an overview of the project here and a spreadsheet summary of all the projects added so far.

You—Yes, You—Can Help AI Predict the Spread of Coronavirus
By Sigal Samuel

Roni Rosenfeld is a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and the leader of the machine learning department and the Delphi research group. In this interview, he explains how he’s modeled and predicted the past flu and what’s on his mind during the coronavirus. One way he’s working to predict the behavior of the virus is by harnessing the “wisdom of crowds.” You can participate here.

I Spent a Year in Space, and I Have Tips on Isolation to Share
By Scott Kelly
The New York Times

Astronaut Scott Kelly spent nearly a year on the International Space Station. If anyone knows about how to get through isolation, it’s him. In this piece, he shares several recommendations for making in through our current predicament based on hard-won experience and NASA research.

Information Hygiene (a quote worth sharing)
By Carl Zimmer

‘I’m Going to Keep Pushing.’ Anthony Fauci Tries to Make the White House Listen to Facts of the Pandemic
By Jon Cohen with Dr. Anthony Fauci

Speaking of information hygiene, this interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci—who you’ve seen on stage during President Trump’s briefings—offers at least a glimpse of what’s happening behind the scenes as the U.S. coordinates its response.

We All Need Small Businesses. Don’t Let Them Die.
By Sendhil Mullainathan
The New York Times

For economist Sendhil Mullainathan the plight of small business is something he takes personally. “My mom ran a small video store in Los Angeles for over 20 years. She survived a major economic recession, two riots that rumbled past her window and even the opening of a Blockbuster nearby.” In this piece, he explains why small businesses are so crucial and how the government can protect them during this economic downturn.

March 20, 2020

What are behavioral scientists doing now to help our chances against the coronavirus? Diana Kwon’s piece in Scientific American tells the story of what several teams are up to. 

Now that we’ve settled into the reality of the pandemic, people are beginning to ask how much we knew ahead of time and what could have been done to prevent the spread of the virus? It turns out, quite a bit. Two pieces, linked below, make this point—the first about the absence of a social and behavioral science team in the White House, the second about the failure of the U.S. Government to heed the warning of its own pandemic simulations. For where we’re at now, check out The New York Times’ piece on COVID-19 curves from around the world. 

Finally, there’s been a flurry of resources and recommendations on working from home. I’ve picked two for you. The first an offer for remote nudges from Humu CEO Laszlo Bock, the second advice from a lab on how they plan to keep plugging along.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

Near Real-Time Studies Look for Behavioral Measures Vital to Stopping Coronavirus
By Diana Kwon
Scientific American

This article illustrates what several behavioral teams around the world are doing to aid in the response to the coronavirus. One team has been testing social distancing measures in response to a call for help from the Mayor of Rome. Another is looking at the effectiveness of moral messages on how we behave under new rules and restrictions. And there’s work fighting misinformation. 

The Other Essential Pandemic Office Trump Eliminated
By Rosa Li

Could the former White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team have helped in this crisis? Definitely, suggests Rosa Li for Slate

Before Virus Outbreak, a Cascade of Warnings Went Unheeded
By David E. Sanger, Eric Lipton, Eileen Sullivan and Michael Crowley
The New York Times

We recently published an excerpt from Dan Heath’s new book, Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen. In the excerpt, Heath explains that to get ahead of a big, thorny problem, you need to unite the right people. Unfortunately for the U.S., and the world, President Trump disbanded the people working on pandemic planning. And this was just one in a series of poor decisions running counter to upstream thinking by the administration. 

“Asked at his news briefing on Thursday about the government’s preparedness, Mr. Trump responded: ‘Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion. Nobody has ever seen anything like this before.’ The work done over the past five years, however, demonstrates that the government had considerable knowledge about the risks of a pandemic and accurately predicted the very types of problems Mr. Trump is now scrambling belatedly to address.”

Which Country Has Flattened the Curve for the Coronavirus?
By K.K. Rebecca Lai and Keith Collins
The New York Times

“Here’s a look at the trajectories of coronavirus cases in all of the countries that have had more than 50 confirmed cases so far. Scales are adjusted in each country to make the curve more readable. The countries are sorted by the number of new cases in the past week.”

Source: The New York Times

Remote Work Nudges

Laszlo Bock, the CEO of Humu and former senior vice president of people operations at Google (and Behavioral Scientist contributor), is offering up some nudges via email to help you and your team with remote work. “Each nudge will contain a short, scientifically-backed suggestion to help you better work from home (or support those who cannot do so) and navigate uncertainty. You can expect to get a new nudge in your inbox every few days (see below for an example).”

My Lab Group Met to Chart Our Response to COVID-19. Here’s What We Learned
By Jay J. Van Bavel

“In many ways, scientists are lucky. Much of our work can be done remotely and we have easy access to information about how to protect ourselves. We also have an opportunity—and perhaps an obligation—to harness science for good. Experts in epidemiology, psychology, communications, and numerous other fields can leverage their own expertise to understand the challenge facing humanity and try to make the world a little bit safer, healthier, or happier. This approach won’t work for all labs, but we found that embracing this challenge was a critical step for helping us cope with the crisis.”

ICYMI: Why a Group of Behavioural Scientists Penned an Open Letter to the U.K. Government Questioning Its Coronavirus Response
By Ulrike Hahn, Nick Chater, David Lagnado, Magda Osman, and Nichola Raihani
Behavioral Scientist

An open letter signed by hundreds of behavioural scientists from across the U.K. calls into question the British government’s decision not to enact social distancing measures.

March 19, 2020

Today’s list highlights the economic side of the coronavirus. One glaring issue, at least in the U.S., is that of paid leave. Grocery store workers for instance often don’t have paid leave, meaning they might have to choose between showing up to work sick—which would be disastrous for the containment of the virus—or going hungry, failing to pay rent, and being stuck without other necessities. It’s an impossible choice. Today’s links also cover: women’s second shift during the coronavirus, the racism emerging as a result of the virus’ origin in China, and how Singapore was able to respond so quickly.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

Paid Leave Vs. The Pandemic
By Greg Rosalsky
NPR: Planet Money

It’s encouraging to see Congress working on a bill that supports paid leave. Keeping people, and thereby the virus, at bay is exactly what health experts are urging us to do. But there’s a swirl of pushback and feet-dragging, as well as organizing among workers. Rosalky speculates on the framing at the end of the article: “Maybe ‘sick leave’ or ‘medical leave,’ with its overtones of a kind of health vacation, is the wrong phrase. Maybe we should be talking about a ‘containment stipend.’

Supermarket Sick
By Judd Legum
Popular Information

Images of empty grocery store shelves dominated headlines a few weeks ago. Yet, the supply chain is doing fine. That’s in no small part because of workers at grocery stores who are working hard to keep the shelves stocked. Judd Legum, who writes the newsletter Popular Information, has been on the case of paid sick leave for grocery store and restaurant workers. He’s broken several stories and his work has led to companies, like Darden, the owner of Olive Garden, to change their policies. When he’s not writing covering the coronavirus, he’s often covering large tech firms, like Facebook’s advertising and fact-checking policies. Sign up for his newsletter to get a in-depth look at corporate policies and actions that you won’t find elsewhere.

#ChecksChecksChecks: Why We Need a Universal Basic Income Now
By Matthew Darlin
Behavioral Scientist

Yesterday, we published a piece by ideas42’s Matthew Darling that makes the case for a universal basic income…now. He dispels myths around how a UBI affects work and explains why a targeted approach (sending money to only those who need it) won’t save the government much money, but will waste valuable time. Politicians in the U.K. are calling for a UBI as well.

Women’s Domestic Burden Just Got Heavier with the Coronavirus
By Lucia Graves
The Guardian

We know that women often pick up a “second shift” of house and home-related work and caregiving. And, as we’ve covered here, women can face an imbalance in the amount of cognitive labor they do as well. Lucia Graves’ article begins to explore what the coronavirus might mean for women. “’Women are typically the chief healthcare officer, the chief entertainment officer, the chief education officer in their homes,’ said Kristy Wallace, CEO of Ellevate Network, a group that supports women in the workplace. ‘In a time of crisis, a time where we don’t have a clear playbook but we do have a lot of panic and anxiety—the weight of these roles is quite overwhelming.’”

Coronavirus Racism Infected My High School (Video)
By Katherine Oung
The New York Time

A high school student reveals the ignorance that has emerged at her school during the coronavirus. These flames have been fanned by President Trump, who continues to use the term “Chinese Virus,” despite a rebuke from the director of the CDC.

The Detectives Racing to Contain the Virus in Singapore
By Karishma Vaswani
BBC News

“As of 16 March, Singapore had confirmed 243 cases and no deaths. For about 40 percent of those people, the first indication they had was the health ministry telling them they needed to be tested and isolated. In total, 6,000 people have been contact traced to date, using a combination of CCTV footage, police investigation and old fashioned, labour-intensive detective work—which often starts with a simple telephone call.”

March 18, 2020

Some degree of social distancing policies are being enacted across the world. That doesn’t mean they’re being implemented uniformly or even followed. Michele Gelfand’s recent piece in the Boston Globe offers one reason why. Meanwhile, Jamil Zaki reiterates the importance of social connection during social distancing. The links below also cover the shaky data from which we’re making our decisions, how our impact on the climate is changing as things slow down, and how leaders fumbled the communication around masks.
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

To Survive the Coronavirus, the United States Must Tighten Up
By Michelle Gelfand
Boston Globe

“While social distancing, better hygiene, and flat-out travel bans may help, we have yet to address one of our biggest vulnerabilities: America’s traditionally loose culture. The decentralized, defiant, do-it-your-own-way norms that make our country so entrepreneurial and creative also deepen our danger during the coronavirus crisis. To fight this pandemic, we can’t just shift our resources; we have to shift our cultural patterns as well.” (Also see our Ask a Behavioral Scientist with Michele Gelfand: Understanding Cultural Differences Around Social Norms)

‘Social Distancing’ Shouldn’t Mean Losing Human Connection
By Jamil Zaki
The Washington Post

Human connection is a buffer against anxiety and uncertainty. It also protects us from loneliness, which can increase our levels of stress and hurt our sleep. Not much is scarier than a pandemic, and yet we need to keep our distance in order to slow the spread of the disease. “Social distancing is indispensable right now, but so is social connection,” writes Jamil Zaki. He offers a few creative ideas to help you use technology to stay connected to your family, friends, and colleagues. Virtual coffee break anyone?

A Fiasco in the Making? As the Coronavirus Pandemic Takes Hold, We Are Making Decisions Without Reliable Data
By John Ioannidis

“The data collected so far on how many people are infected and how the epidemic is evolving are utterly unreliable,” writes John Ioannidis. He goes on to argue that without good data, we may be inflicting unnecessary social and economic harm on ourselves, with things like closing schools and mandated social distancing. Only hindsight, and better, will tell us whether our actions were too little too late or if we went overboard. 

Study: Coronavirus Lockdown Likely Saved 77,000 Lives In China Just By Reducing Pollution
By Jeff McMahon

You may have seen images of clear water in Venice’s canals—(Update 3/21/20: beware that some of the animals “returning” to places in Italy or around the world were not real.)—or reduced pollution over China and Italy, as this piece highlights. With the economy and travel ground to a halt, we’re witnessing, at least partially, what the world might look without us scurrying around.

Social Distancing? You Might Be Fighting Climate Change, Too
By John Schwartz
The New York Times

In this piece, John Schwartz asks, “Could social isolation help reduce an individual’s production of greenhouse gases and end up having unexpected consequences for climate change?” He also wonders how we might continue more climate friendly behaviors, once we’re all buzzing around again.

Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired
By Zeynep Tufekci
The New York Times

Contradictions abound when it comes to masks. For one, we’ve been told they protect against transmission of the virus at the same time that they aren’t necessary for the general public. All that was to cover the painful truth, suggests Zeynep Tufekci—that we don’t have enough and medical professionals need them most.

“Given that there is indeed a mask shortage and that medical workers absolutely do need these masks more, what should the authorities have said? The full painful truth. Despite warnings from experts for decades, especially after the near miss of SARS, we still weren’t prepared for this pandemic, and we did not ramp up domestic production when we could, and now there’s a mask shortage—and that’s disastrous because our front line health care workers deserve the best protection. Besides, if they fall ill, we will all be doomed.”

March 17, 2020

Why Outbreaks like Coronavirus Spread Exponentially, and How to “Flatten the Curve” (Data visualization)
By Harry Stevens
The Washington Post

You’ve probably heard the phrase “flatten the curve” quite a bit by now—on the news and social media, at least. The idea is that we need to keep the number of cases of coronavirus beneath the capacity of the health system, most notably through social distancing and quarantine. This article provides a great visualization of how different social distancing policies will affect the spread of the disease. If anyone in your family or friend group isn’t heeding the social distancing recommendations put out by the government, this may be a helpful article to share.

Quarantined Italians Record Messages for “Themself From 10 Days Ago” During Coronavirus Pandemic
By Olmo Parenti, Cosimo Quartana, Giacomo Ostini, Marco Zannoni, Arturo Vicario
A Thing By

We wrote in our email edition yesterday that facts don’t always convince. So, if the Washington Post piece linked above doesn’t convince people to social distance, consider sending them this video. Made by Italian film collective “A Thing By,” it features a group of Italians in quarantine sharing what they wish they would have done in hindsight. And as a bonus, here’s Max Brooks alongside his father, the famous comedian Mel Brooks, with a creative video of explaining social distancing

What If Andrew Yang Was Right?
By Adam Harris with Andrew Yang
The Atlantic

Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang was banging the drum about a universal basic income (UBI) throughout his campaign. With the pandemic injecting an incredible level of uncertainty into people’s lives, particularly their financial well-being, policymakers are looking for solutions and UBI is very much on the table. Yang is advocating for $1000 per month for every U.S. adult during the crisis, and the idea is gaining some previously unlikely supporters, like Mitt Romney. “What is the political downside to giving everyone cash?” Yang asks. “I don’t see it. It’s like, you pass it and you look like a hero; you don’t pass it, you’re a moron. Even members of Congress can see that calculation.”

Does Closing Schools Slow the Spread of Coronavirus? Past Outbreaks Provide Clues
By Jennifer Couzin-Frankel with Nicholas Christakis

Closing schools has been a controversial issue. Some have made seemingly superficial or overly general arguments—that it will disrupt people’s lives. Uh, but isn’t that what a pandemic does? Others have tried to factor in the context—that kids won’t be able to receive lunches they rely on or won’t be able to access online learning if school closes. This interview provides some background on how school closures have been implemented in the past and what we might be able to apply this time around. Japan, for one, is providing income to parents who stay homoe from work while schools are closed. 

“Let’s do a thought experiment. If there is an outbreak in your school, would you advocate for closing the school? If the epidemic is occurring around your school, you know that it is going to strike the school. And so if you’re prepared to close the school when it arrives at your school, it makes much more sense to close when it is near the school.” 

Birth in the Time of COVID-19
By Emily Oster

New or expecting parents wondering how the coronavirus might affect them may want to follow Emily Oster’s coverage. Oster focuses on data-informed decision-making for parents. In this post, she answers some of the most common questions she’s received, including: Can I pass COVID-19 to my child? Should I avoid pre-natal check-ups? Should I induce early? (Full disclosure: Emily Oster is on the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.)

How to Practice Social Distancing While Helping the Economy
By Susan Athey and Dean Karlan
The Washington Post

“People are starting to practice not only social distancing but also economic distancing, which leaves a lot of people—especially the most economically vulnerable—in the lurch,” the authors write. “What can we do to make a difference when we’re stuck at home, disconnected both socially and economically?” They offer some tips for how you may be able to help those in need, both locally—like at your corner coffee shop—and globally—as those in already vulnerable, poor positions are likely to be hit the hardest.

The Psychological Science Accelerator Calls for Rapid and Impactful Study Proposals on COVID-19
Psychological Science Accelerator

“The Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA) is the largest consortium of research psychologists in the world. Behavioral scientists can play an important role in combating the growing COVID-19 pandemic if we quickly take action to collect high-quality data from large, global samples. The PSA wants to team up with researchers working on important questions related to this pandemic.”

The Myth of the Panicky Individual Investor
By Dan Egan
Dan Egan Blog

Betterment’s Dan Egan shares his thoughts on the idea that individual investors panic. He speculates that the myth is a result of not being able to understand what individual investors actually do—which he speculates is, well, nothing. For those with an eye on the stock market at the moment, this may be a take you’re not seeing elsewhere.

March 16, 2020

Op-Ed: How to Help Workers Laid Off in the Coronavirus Crisis
By Heather Boushey
The Los Angeles Times

With economic inequality in the United States at historically high levels, many people live perched on a knife’s edge financially—and that was before the pandemic. Heather Boushey presents a series of ideas to help, including guaranteeing workers paid sick leave, expanding food assistance programs, and ensuring unemployment insurance reaches those who need it.

A Trick to Stop Touching Your Face
By Reb Rebele and Adam Grant
The Atlantic

A whole slew of our hygiene habits need to change, and fast. This piece offers up evidence for the idea that it’s easier to stick to washing our hands or not touching our face, if we think about our impact on our community’s well-being, rather than our own.

Mapping the Social Network of Coronavirus
By Benedict Carey
The New York Times

Humans are spreading coronavirus. In addition to understanding the virus itself, we need to understand how we’re moving it around the world. This article examines how network scientists are trying to map the social network of the virus. “We can look, for example, at when X number of people are searching for ‘fever’ online, there were Y number of people who ended up in the hospital…We can then use that kind of day-to-day data to continually update these social-network models.”

Why No One Is Reading Your Coronavirus Emails
By Todd Rogers

Communication matters during a crisis. Todd Rogers wants to help you write better emails during this one. Make your emails accessible, brief, use a large font (especially if emailing an elderly population), forget the frills like borders, and make the structure clear.

Handwashing Can Stop a Virus—So Why Don’t We Do It?
By Michael Hallsworth
Behavioral Scientist

Michael Hallsworth reports on how behavioral principles can help improve hand hygiene. One of the problems he introduces is a “risk thermostat”—that when people take some protective action (like wearing a face mask), it may make them less likely to engage in other important ones. The piece suggests ways to increase our collective good habits, but also some specific ways to remember to wash your own hands more.

Anatomy of a Pandemic
By Kevin Patterson
The Walrus

“We must now contemplate how much we need one another. The instinct to recoil would be the worst possible response because doing so would ensure that the most vulnerable among us are consumed…Rarely is the argument for mutual devotion so easily made.”

Coronavirus Conversations: Alison Buttenheim
By Dan Gorenstein

An audio interview with Alison Buttenheim, an associate professor of nursing and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania. She goes through the hard decisions that individuals will need to make in the face of the virus—like parents making decisions about whether to attend events with their kids. She also goes into the need for strict social distancing policies, immediately. “The outbreak in the U.S. is evolving very rapidly….What we want to do is not fuel that fire. And every person who shows up to any event is in a small way fueling that fire.”

Even as Behavioural Researchers We Couldn’t Resist the Urge to Buy Toilet Paper
By Liam Smith and Celine Klemm
The Guardian

“There are at least three factors driving our response – scarcity, social proof, and regaining a sense of control. It’s scary how strong these influences are on our behaviour. Stockpiling is not needed, yet we still have the urge to do it. As behavioural researchers, we intimately know the forces acting on us, yet we’re helpless to resist them.”

Thoughts on the Pandemic
By Greg Mankiw
Greg Mankiw Blog

An economist shares a quick take on what he thinks the U.S. should be doing from an economic standpoint.

Marginal Revolution Blog
By Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok

The blog run by economists Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok is a source for ideas, articles, and discussion about the coronavirus and its impact, in addition to non-pandemic-related posts. Cowen and Tabarrok share posts several times a day, many covering the less-talked about aspects of the situation we find ourselves in.