PARIS — The resurgence of the epidemic has stoked the debate on social distancing and wearing masks, and in France, as elsewhere, a wave of indignation over behavior deemed irresponsible has swept through the media and across social networks. Much of the focus is on "young people," who are shown dancing, glued together and without masks on beaches and other improvised party sites.

The recurring question then is what to do about it? How far can we go to control how people behave? Is it necessary to go through the law and the threat of fines and other forms of punishment?

On one side of the debate are advocates of individual responsibility, who bet on civic-mindedness. Opposing them are those who don't want their health to be compromised by people they deem "indisciplined."

The latter don't trust their fellow Frenchmen and want the state to regulate the smallest details of collective life. And if there is no effective legislation — or the laws alone aren't enough — there is a great temptation to try to impose virtuous health behavior by pointing the finger at the rule breakers, by trying to make them feel ashamed or guilty, or even more so by resorting to public retribution.

But does this "blame game" really work? That's a question also being posed right now in the United States. Are the authorities or individuals who blame me for not complying with the rules the best ones to lecture me? Even more fundamentally, one wonders about the effectiveness of this type of message: Does trying to make me feel guilty really promote a change in my behavior?

How far can we go to control how people behave?

In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. In reaction to these campaigns, we see more and more uncooperative people expressing themselves, making the non-wearing of masks a symbol of insubordination. It's insubordination to a "disconnected elite" that embodies everything they abhor, insubordination to rules that they perceive as moralizing or infantilizing.

Far from succeeding in changing behaviors, the restrictive use of the "social norm" thus generates, in part of the population, the opposite effect. Some will counter-argue, others will feel rather comforted in their initial attitude and others still will attack the messenger and what they represent.

Promoting mask wearing should focus on collective gains — Photo: Kate Trifo/Unsplash

In short, "name and shame" methods or "blame games" tend to foster bullheadedness, the consequences of which are sometimes more negative than the desired effect. As management specialists often say: "When there is blame, there is no learning." Putting employees — or citizens — in a defensive, adversarial position encourages them to freeze, hold their positions and defend themselves against what is perceived as an attack on their person, rather than promoting introspection and reflection on the individual and collective gains they could make from a change in their behavior.

These practices go far beyond the health issue, and are in fact fairly well identified and have been the subject of numerous studies. They apply to many subjects of general interest, such as the environment. When Greta Thunberg declares, on the subject of climate change, "I want you to panic," she gives rise to the same resistance. For part of the population, the panic button has a turnoff effect. For those who are already convinced that environmental protection must be sped up, Thunberg's words are a welcome reminder. But for those who aren't attuned to her message, her admonition has the opposite effect.

Does trying to make me feel guilty really promote a change in my behavior?

This brings us back to the total-control option, where the state dictates what we can and can't do and when. A prime example is the grotesque, 62-page health and safety guide compiled for the French public school system. And yet, there's still an alternative: What if public authorities, like private companies, try to understand why some people are reluctant to wear masks or adopt social distancing habits, based on a real understanding of the mechanisms for forming attitudes, changing behavior and getting around resistance to change?

Doing so involves better identifying who you want to convince, what messengers they trust and what their sticking points are, all while paying attention to what is important to them and what is less important to them. Is it the discomfort of wearing a mask? Is it the lack of or deterioration of social interactions? The environment in which they live? Their self-confidence? Their belief that they will escape the worst?

In a word, the key to more effective persuasion strategies is the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others rather than expect them simply to act in accordance with what works for you. And to do that, we must start by avoiding false consensus: the tendency, that is, to believe that our judgments about what is appropriate behavior are very widely shared.

*François-Xavier Demoures is an expert in opinion strategy and Chloé Morin is the director of the Opinion Observatory at the Jean-Jaurès Foundation.

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