(Image: AAP/Luis Ascui)

A second lockdown will be much harder than the first.  

That’s because of a psychological quirk behavioural economists call the endowment effect, a cognitive bias related to the broader concept of loss aversion.  

In essence, people value things they have been given or purchased far more than things of similar value that belong to others or are sitting on the shelf.

Repeated experiments in behavioural economics — the intersection between economics and psychology — have confirmed this bias.  

When restrictions were eased, governments gave people a gift: the freedom to mingle. It is much more valuable now than similar freedoms we had before COVID-19 — freedoms we took for granted, we never thought of them as something given to us.

So returning to lockdown is not as simple as saying “you did it once before, so you can do it again”.

The second time takes away something we value. People will react to this loss with correspondingly greater negativity.  

A likely consequence is that this time round, as confirmed by a recent Griffith University survey, compliance will be less prevalent.

People will have to be forced. There will be confrontation and arrests. Behind the scenes there will be evasion.

Police can take enforcement action against obvious breaches. The government has a near monopoly on the use of force to deliver its policies.

But disgruntled people suffering loss will find inventive and surreptitious ways to break the rules without being caught.

Loss aversion won’t apply with everyone — some people will be indifferent. But many people, probably a majority, will perceive themselves as losing a valuable good (their freedom to move and mingle) recently gifted by the government.

For a second lockdown to work this perception needs to be countered directly. It means doing it completely differently the second time around.

It’s not too late for other states to learn from Victoria. If the spread of COVID-19 means other states or territories have to reinstate greater distancing and/or quarantining, the second time can be managed so it feels less like taking back a gift.

Various measures that might help include: much more testing, in a friendly and non-coercive manner; positive incentives for people who isolate (for example, free pay TV subscriptions, loaner TVs for people who don’t have them, cheap phone plans, free food, masks); group bubbles rather than single dwellings where at least people would have company.

An option worth considering in small and close-knit neighborhoods is safe zones — the opposite of hot spots — where everyone inside the zone is tested and declared virus free, to encourage people in those zones to isolate for themselves. That is, encourage social norms rather than using armed force as a lockdown measure.  

Going back to old lockdown approaches has a further negative impact — it diminishes public confidence in the pandemic response.

There are already signs of declining trust. Norman Swan, at first one of the strongest supporters of chief medical officers, has begun to question them over their reluctance to support masks as a preventive measure.

Media outlets that once had a united front in support of each and every lockdown measure are increasingly likely to ask questions.

A second lockdown is not the first lockdown on rewind. The behavioural economics research tells us that people will react differently. To keep our trust, governments and their medical advisers need to show they understand this evidence and are adjusting their responses.

Do you feel differently about the second Melbourne lockdown to the first? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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