How behavioral change in times of Corona can show us the way

Human behavior often seems persistent and does change quickly. And yet the Corona crisis is teaching us that we are flexible and can adapt quickly if we really want to. If someone had told us 4 months ago that in the spring of 2020 we would stop shaking hands all over the world, keep social distance of 1.5 meters between people and collectively work from home, many of us would not have believed this. And look … it happened anyway. Even though there is still a minority of people who do not follow, the majority does and shows we as humans can adapt our behavior amazingly fast. 

Support tools and seeing benefits acting as a catalyst for behavioral change 

The success of change in behavior lies in several elements. It starts with clarifying which desired behavior you want to achieve. Just think of the very clear rule of 1.5 m social distance we should respect. Next we can help our brain to further develop this behavior by using support tools or “nudges”. A concrete example is the application of dots or lines on the floors of shops. These dots or lines act as a visual behavioral intervention and ensure you do not fall into “unconscious” old patterns of getting too close. It helps you to achieve the new desired behavior. Finally, if we want to achieve lasting success in behavioral change, it is important that our brains see benefits in the new behavior compared to the old behavior. In the case of no more shaking hands we can think about the benefit of not being infected over the old benefit of shaking hands as a symbol of trust, a will to cooperate or just a sign of friendship. Depending on whether the new benefit remains long term relevant, the behavioral change may also be permanent. 

Specific social standards are gradually changed 

The longer the period will last in which we practice our new behavior and the more the benefit of the new behavior settles in our brains, the greater the likelihood that certain behavioral changes will last. We are, as it were, resetting the previous default. Already now, speculation is running high that in the future we will shop differently, flexible working will settle as the norm and we will no longer shake hands in a professional context. The less stuck the old standards in our brains or the weaker the benefit of the old standard compared to the new one, the more change will last. In this context it is indeed possible that after this crisis we will continue to wake up in a world with different behaviors. Behaviors that introduce new cultures such as a “low touch” culture or a “flexible work” culture. 

What about the standards around gender (in)equality?

The risk for viral infections will reset specific standards. But there are more standards in the world that are in direct need of change. The social norms around men and women are still on top of the list. The different social standards applied to men and women that give rise to inequality are painfully clear today from the rise in domestic violence during times of #stayathome. A place where we should feel most safe. Let’s not be blind to it. Being born as a girl or boy today still determines your statistical probability of being confronted with physical violence, since men are disproportionally more involved than women. Of course, this doesn’t mean that there are no violent women. It does mean, however, that there is bigger chance of physical abusers being men. Gender inequality is one of the most important causes of violence against women. The lower the social status, the higher the sexual and physical violence against women in these societies. Or, the higher the macho level of a culture, the more gender-based violence. It will happen to you just when you are asked to stay at home. It is high time that we do something about this.

Never waste a good crisis

Let us not waste this crisis and remember the learning. We experience first hand we are able to change our behavior very quickly. So it is possible! Let us use the insights from the crisis to also formulate a clear approach to gender equality. Let us not wait until the crisis is over, to continue working on it. There is no time to waste for those who experience the negative effects of gender inequality while you read this article. Let us clearly define desired behaviors, deploy support tools and experience benefits so the effect is lasting.

I encourage politicians to define the desired behaviors even more sharply and to develop the rules of the game. I ask policymakers to ensure that the expert panels resolving the crisis have both men and women. The decisions concern all of us, men and women. I encourage educators to install new norms and standards in our children and lead by example. It is the perfect time to give our children the right messages. Show them that men can combine homework with care just as well as women. Teach your sons, just like your daughters, that nursing is not a woman’s job but a hero’s job, accessible and worthy for everyone. I ask the media to be mindful to not only show stereotypical images during this period. Demonstrate the power of both male and female surgeons, store clerks and all the heroes of our society. Finally, set a good example yourself. Treat each other with respect, also at your home. If we each change our behavior in favor of gender equality, others can follow. In addition to resetting the standards to protect our health we also have the opportunity to remove the double (uneven) standard around boys and girls, men and women. Now and in the future. Behavioral change in times of corona has showed us without a doubt change is within our reach. Together we can rewrite the norm around gender inequality. Together we can reset the default!

How behavioral change in times of Corona can show us the way

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