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Commentary: Is behaving with social responsibility during a pandemic so hard?

There is a way to shift your mindset if you find yourself struggling to wear masks or keep safe distances, says SUSS’ Brandon Koh

Commentary: Is behaving with social responsibility during a pandemic so hard?

Public benches at Orchard Gateway mall marked for safe distancing on Mar 26, 2020. (Photo: Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: As the coronavirus rages on worldwide, many countries have re-entered lockdowns while others battle third or fourth waves of outbreaks.

In contrast, while there have been a few new local community cases in the last few days, most in Singapore are anticipating the country shift into its third phase of reopening, having dramatically reduced the total number of infections, with the majority coming from imported cases.

We have been in Phase 2 for five months, with most people largely adhering to COVID-19 rules, save for a few bad eggs.

Can Singapore maintain the current benign state? The recent rise in breach of safety measures by both individuals and establishments may be a cause for concern.

READ: 32 diners fined for breaching COVID-19 rules; Brewerkz, Siam Square Mookata among F&B outlets ordered to close

LISTEN: Entering Phase 2: What's behind rules on gatherings, dining, weddings and more?


Readers from Singapore probably struggle to understand why people in other countries refuse to wear masks and social distance amid climbing infection and death rates. 

In fact, some people even actively resist safety measures their governments impose.

When it comes to health-related behaviours, at least three factors appear critical: Norms, attitudes, and perceived behavioural control.

Norms refer to how strictly a culture expects a certain behaviour. Singapore is a textbook definition of a tight culture, where societal norms are strict and strongly enforced by law or through informal means such as public shaming.

In contrast, loose cultures often value individual autonomy. This in part explains why many in Western countries protest against mandating mask-wearing, arguing it is an infringement of individual rights.

Attitudes, which include our subjective beliefs and evaluation of a behaviour, have a part to play. During a crisis, the media, Internet, and people around us play a big role in shaping our views.

READ: Commentary: That new problem of disposable masks ending up as trash on pavements and beaches 

Unfortunately, in the US for example, the messages from health professionals, political leaders, and social media has been confusing. Misinformation is prevalent. 

This has caused some people to think that masks are ineffective or that COVID-19 is no more serious than the common flu.

The problem of mixed messages is often exacerbated by confirmation bias – a psychological effect where people tend to selectively overweigh and remember information that confirms their prior beliefs. 

When faced with varying opinions, people may unfortunately view safety regulations to be a matter of choice, and act according to their own biases.


But if norms and attitudes don’t explain why there have been recent violations of rules in Singapore, what does?

Perhaps it’s the third factor of perceived behavioural control concerns whether people feel confident in successfully executing behaviours.

For example, even when tasks such as remaining isolated during the circuit breaker and mask-wearing appear straightforward, they become challenging with the passage of time.

People wearing face masks walk past a closed retail mall along the Orchard Road shopping belt in Singapore on May 6, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

One common notion is that people have become “fatigued” by the prolonged adherence to the safety measures. In psychology, this is sometimes referred as “ego depletion”, when people exercise self-control to the point of exhaustion.

Self-control, which is act of enduring short-term displeasure to reap valued long-term goals, can be an emotionally labouring challenge in many circumstances, for example if people are trying to diet.

READ: Commentary: Wear your mask properly! Uncovering the reasons behind public mask shaming

Because the human brain actively seeks short-term pleasures, such impulses must be suppressed if we are to succeed at self-control. When this mental willpower becomes depleted, people relent to their impulses.

A good habit, however, is very different. Habits are behaviours performed automatically in response to certain cues, often without conscious thought and do not drain our willpower.

Behaviours such as mask-wearing and social distancing probably started out as a type of self-control behaviour, which can be draining over time.

For example, do you find the discomfort of wearing a mask constantly distracting your thoughts? Do you actively resist the urge of pulling your mask down for a momentary relief? If so, you may be mobilising your willpower, which can be mentally depleting.

In contrast, for those who practice COVID-19 safety measures out of habit without thinking will probably find it requiring less effort and are not susceptible to the same fatigue.

Seats in an eatery marked with an "X'" to indicate safe distancing measures in effect. (File photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

Indeed, these individuals may even feel uncomfortable without their masks or guilty for flouting any rules.

As Singapore considers relaxing more rules in the shift to Phase 3, the key question may be how we can facilitate the formation of these good habits.

READ: Commentary: COVID-19 online shaming and the harm it can cause


With any motivated behaviour, doing something that aligns with our beliefs is generally more pleasant and intrinsically rewarding. For example, when people volunteer for a cause they believe in, the positive emotions experienced from acting in line with one’s values keeps them going.

Similarly, keeping to the safety measures will be easier when we see its value.

Singapore has done well in the fight against COVID-19 because of the effective measures put in place.

READ: Commentary: Singapore’s almost in our new normal. Don’t be the dud who jeopardises that

Other countries are struggling to contain the virus and have had to get back to punitive lockdowns, but here, we have been able to go about our lives – going to work, school and to go out to eat and exercise, with some small tweaks.

Perhaps because of our low number of cases, some have disregarded the need for safety measures. But being vigilant is still critical if we want to keep our freedoms now. 

The asymptomatic cases and transmissions in the community that have remained undetected all this time are showing up in community surveillance testing.

This will become important as we open up to travellers and relax the rules further in Phase 3.

Masks also have added benefits of preventing other contagious diseases, such as the common flu. Falling sick during such a time is worrying and impinges on our psychological well-being.

READ: Commentary: Even a pandemic can't convince workers to take sick days

LISTEN: Returning to the office – can you say no?

Finally, our engagement in the safety measures also symbolise our values of social responsibility. When we actively participate in the safety measures, keep in mind we are not only protecting ourselves but also gesture our commitment to care about one another as a society.


Seeing the value of social responsibility will also motivate businesses to stay safe.

Usually packed with people, it remains a "big question mark" what Ramadan will be like for dining hotspots in Kampong Glam like I Am Cafe, said owner Jamuri Busori. (Photo: Facebook/I Am Cafe)

A growing concern is that more establishments are breaching safety measures, some of which are repeat offenders. 

Recently, several food and beverage outlets (F&B) were caught serving alcohol beyond 10:30pm and taking reservations of more than five patrons.

These cases are glaring because unlike individuals who may commit spur-of-the-moment errors, organisations are expected to be more systematic, so as to keep their businesses going in a trying time.

Understandably, the COVID-19 measures have weighed heavily on the bottom lines of many establishments, particularly F&B outlets. 

Unfortunately, this frames the safety measures as a cost, and a business’ natural reaction to cost is to try to circumvent it.

Listen: How many stars will you give Singapore's F&B industry this COVID-19 season?

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Seeing the safety measures in a positive frame can lead to innovative outcomes.

Well-established organisations have long recognised the value of practicing corporate social responsibility (CSR). CSR not only holds an organisation socially accountable; it builds a brand.

If one looks past the mandatory nature of the COVID-19 measures, they in fact bear all the characteristics of CSR. It symbolises the willingness to put profit-making aside for the well-being of the community.

Organisations that realise this can convert the difficult situation into an opportunity, by innovating ways to make the safety measures easier, safer, or more pleasant for their customers.

For example, supermarkets in Finland have implemented a new hands-free door handle for refrigerator doors. Not only does it reduce risk of transmissions, it turned out to be more ergonomic, especially for people with physical difficulties.

To spur adherence and innovation, perhaps instead of only policing non-compliance, recognition can be awarded to businesses who have high standards of adherence and innovation during this time.

The improving COVID-19 situation in Singapore may have led some to question and disregard the safety measures. But resisting the safety measures is not only painful but illegal.

Instead, we can focus on collectively valuing and exercising our social responsibility to form good habits. This not only keeps us and our families safe but also protects many of the freedoms we take for granted.

Dr Brandon Koh is an Industrial-Organisational Psychologist and Lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Listen to Malaysians share how they have been coping fighting a new wave of COVID-19 infections in Heart of the Matter podcast:

Source: CNA/cr


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