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The paradox of choice

The journey can often feel longer on the way back.

Monday July 19 sees the UK lift the vast majority of COVID-19 restrictions. For many, this signals a return to “almost normality,” when systems, behaviors, and attitudes will snap back into place with a pleasing “clack.”

But who are we kidding? Nothing’s going to snap back cleanly – habits and routines have been disrupted, and we’ve re-evaluated almost every aspect of our lives during this period. Some things we’ve missed a lot, but we’ve also (re)introduced others that make our lives considerably better. Like it or not, there will be a mountain of behavioral residue left in the system. No pleasing “clack,” then.

For event organizers and others that manage groups of people for a living, this will have its challenges, with an increased need to quickly navigate behaviors (and attitudes) changing at high speed. Here are five ideas behavioral science can offer that may make it easier to navigate what happens next.


1.    The paradox of choice

We all think more choice is good, and it is – up to a point. There’s a weighty body of evidence that supports the argument that too much choice overwhelms us and that when we’re overwhelmed, we tend to stick with the status quo. With personal choice now the arbiter of how we navigate COVID, we’re confronted with a level and type of choice not seen before. To reduce the risk that people choose not to choose, we need to simplify these choices where we can.

2.    Careful what you signal

There’s a set of behaviors now welded to COVID – think mask wearing, social distancing, and not going to the office. These are highly charged behaviors, with deep associations and connotations, meaning they signal something very clearly to everyone around us. This also means others interpret these behaviors (or lack of) very specifically. So, the potential for misinterpretation is huge. To reduce the risk of people misunderstanding our actions, we need to make sure people can easily and clearly communicate why they’re doing things the way they are.

3.    Decisions – from bad to worse

None of us like making a bad choice. But some bad choices hurt more than others. If the status quo turns out to be a mistake, we regret this less than if a new choice turns out to be a bad one. This is important when it comes to encouraging us to make new choices as restrictions lift – a wrong step weighs heavily on us. So, we need to give people confidence that the choice to change is a safe and good one.

4.    Uncertainty

Uncertainty pulls the rug from under our ability to make good choices. We all tend to run frugal cost-benefit analyses before making any choice, and uncertainty drives up these costs and obfuscates benefits. With so much uncertainty now in terms of what can and should be done, we need to make the benefits of acting on the lifting of restrictions unambiguous.

5.    Source credibility

For the last 18 months, our social behaviors have been almost exclusively determined by governments. Almost all of the time, we pay attention to what governments say, because we believe they know what they’re talking about when it comes to society and safety; they are a credible source. But now government is leaving it to us to decide. Are we our own credible source? We need to step in and plug this source credibility gap.


Recognizing that things will get more complicated initially is important. But it’s not all bad news. Applied behavioral science is pragmatic and provides useful reference points for those in coalface roles, as restrictions lift. We know that a sense of autonomy is a critical source of motivation for us all. Now that we have to work out what to do for ourselves, this has to bolster and refresh our sense of autonomy. This may well motivate us to engage in doing the right thing – for ourselves, our colleagues, and everyone else around us, simply because we can. So, might the key simply be reminding people of their recovered autonomy?


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