We wanted to understand how diseases influence decision-making; COVID-19 is teaching us the hard way

People mingling

In the latest FIELD blog modellers Ewan and Maria discuss how COVID-19 is teaching us the hard way about how diseases influence decision-making.

Among the many ominous headlines seen over the last few weeks there was one that may have brought a small amount of amusement: "Coronavirus conference cancelled due to coronavirus." Sadly, we have to report, the FIELD project has also fallen victim to the same irony.

We were ready to host a workshop this May with the title Using behavioural social science data to inform mathematical and computational models of infectious disease and invasive species. We had a room reserved in St Leonard's hall - a beautiful Victorian mansion in Edinburgh - and invited 20 top academics with expertise from fields like behavioural economics, social science, and game theory, that also know a great deal about how diseases and invasive species are modelled.

The plan was to discuss good practices on how to bring these disciplines and data sources together; a subject that has suddenly become a hot topic of debate in the media, with the UK government including "behavioural fatigue" in their forecasts of coronavirus. Our goal was to integrate the various perspectives and methods used to tackle similar questions - we see currently a massive divide in the scientific community both within and between disciplines.

Watching the number of coronavirus cases increase day by day, we started to examine our own behaviour - our evaluation of the benefits of having this meeting began to change. Eventually we decided to postpone the workshop indefinitely.

It is important to talk about this as it is the type of decision that people are being forced to make every day during these troubled times - many of whom have much more to lose than just the chance for academic collaboration. Here are just a few of the things we had to consider:

-- Uncertainty: judgements had to be made about what the state of affairs will be at the time of the workshop, forcing us to speculate on how epidemic will grow, will the government roll out travel restrictions? How will people feel about travelling at that time? etc.

-- Investment: it has been difficult to accept the reality of the situation, especially after investing our time and effort to the project.

-- Social pressure: over the last few weeks an increasing number of meetings and conferences have been cancelled. We asked for the opinion of the invited guests and most were supportive of the proposal to postpone (having the meeting electronically was also suggested).

-- Responsibility: We have a commitment to keep our community healthy and cannot expect our guests to risk their well-being as well as their families by coming out of self-isolation, especially given the gravity of the situation.

Infectious disease influences various aspects of our lives, from panic buying to the general trust or lack thereof in the authorities. It is something that government advisors need to be better informed on as it will inevitably shape our societies and economies. We might be tempted to think that epidemics no longer concern individual decision-making and belong instead in the realm of population dynamics. Whilst this may be true, individuals do have the power to shape and influence collective action.

Incorporating knowledge about human behaviour, risk perception, and decision making under uncertainty will be critical to our preparedness for the next pandemic. Ideally, these complex issues would be discussed by an interdisciplinary team of experts in a Victorian mansion, but we don't yet know when that will happen.

Ewan and Maria blog

Image created by Dr Emma Hodcroft of Biozentrum, University of Basel, who discussed how to encourage social distancing during the current pandemic.