We’re getting a lot of advice these days. Some of the tips for the pandemic are good, such as wearing masks. Some of it – like injecting bleach – is actually dangerous. As a behavioral scientist, I know that the advice I’m about to give you is backed up by years of research, but as a semi-functional adult I’m aware it’s going to sound pretty dumb.
To navigate awkward social settings during the pandemic, act like a toddler.
No, I don’t mean throwing a fit because you won’t buy yourself popsicles. When I suggest acting like a toddler to navigate awkward social situations, I’m referencing research that shows how well-suited preschool-age children are to this uncertain era and how badly our adult brains are conditioned to it.
Recently, I went out to eat at a few restaurants and was struck how awkward I felt. I didn’t know where to stand, where and how to sit, what the mask procedures were, and if I should be using the hand sanitizer on the host station. What was once an unconscious behavior has become more fraught than a middle-school cafeteria.
Making matters worse is that each restaurant had different rules of engagement. Some had special walkways with poorly placed signage on the floor marking paths. Others had bricks on the table that signified various stages of the cleaning process. (Customers had to turn the bricks over when they left, which is more of a code than a system.) Some had installed foot pedals for opening the bathroom door but not the signage to make their presence obvious. There were so many new rules that each time I felt like I was eating at restaurant for the first time.
Meanwhile, my four-year-old friend Wren has no problem adapting to the new rules. Wren’s face lights up if you talk about the parties you can throw after “corina,” as she calls it, but she never bugs her parents about going to the pool or the park. And she has no problem loudly calling out anyone not wearing a mask. That’s because by age three children begin to understand social norms and readily accept any behavior if everyone else is doing it. So if no one is going to the pool and everyone is wearing a mask, then that’s just the way it is. She’d probably love the rule about turning over brick.
My brain, unlike a toddler’s, is conditioned to deal with a social environment by following the usual cues that help us resolve uncertainty. These new social settings and their unestablished cues – here a food pedal, there a brick – cause uncertainty and anxiety.
The result is what social scientists call “peer discomfort,” or what you feel in a situation where someone is acting differently from what you perceive the rule is. Whereas a toddler’s brain loves clear rules, an adult’s brain trips over the cognitive dissonance between the difference what you see and what you know to be true, such as seeing people shake hands.
Another disorienting factor for an adult’s brain is called “audience inhibition.” That’s when you’re in an environment that used to operate under the old rules, such as a grocery store or a restaurant, where people now act in unfamiliar ways. The brain’s natural response is to be afraid of doing anything that might cause embrassment, leading to herd behavior. Do I wear a mask here? Should I use the hand sanitizer before or after I swipe my card? I’ll just do what that guy is doing.
A new study published in Scientific American suggests that to ease this widespread uncertainty, we need to create the expectation that we’re all expected to follow new social norms. We’re talking about creating clear guidelines on why we act this way now – to help other people, and so we don’t get kicked out of restaurants, grocery stores, and other old places where new behaviors are expected.
The core principle we need to reinforce is fairness: What’s good for the hive is good for the bee. If we’re aware of our place in the hive and how the hive operates, we can develop new habits and work through the temporary anxiety of feeling out of place at the local grocery store, where, it should be said, you should really treat yourself to the good popsicles. Wren would want you to reward yourself for wearing a mask.
Lilly Kofler is the vice president of Behavioral Science and is the U.S. lead of Hill+Knowlton Strategies Behavioral Science Unit.^p