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It's Wednesday, August the 19th, and you're very welcome to the Inside Politics podcast from the Irish Times. I'm Hewlin.
And joining me today, Tanden looks back from his holidays, our political editor, partly he hyper buscher, who, lest anybody worry Pat wasn't in France, and also by behavioral economist Professor Pete Laun, who heads the Behavioral Research Unit at the CIA.
Thanks very much for joining us today. Morning, Pat. I'm going to go to you first because obviously major page one lead story today about new restrictions introduced by the government last night in response to a spike in covid-19. But specifically your part of that story and you have an analysis inside the paper of divisions.
Could you find a stronger word than divisions, outright conflict, a cabinet level over over what measures were agreed yesterday?
I think our conflict might be putting us a little strongly, but there is certainly division at Cabinet. It was I think according to the accounts that I got last night and and and again this morning, probably the most fractious cabinet meeting of the current government. And the way I described it this morning is, is that the I think, you know, the sort of fraying of the social consensus that I think we've begun to see over recent weeks about the measures to tackle the spread of the pandemic.
I think that reached politics in general some time ago. So, you know, you've seen pretty strong criticism by both Sinn Fein and Labor yesterday of some of the measures announced by government. But I think the significance of yesterday was that it has now become apparent that that that fraying of the consensus has reached the cabinet room. And there was a sense amongst largely amongst Fine Gael ministers, but also amongst some informal ministers, that they were being almost bounced into quite draconian measures, not quite a return of the lockdown, but certainly movement in that direction without very significant discussion.
Our explanation from from from the centre of government, perhaps even more seriously. I think there was it was evident to everyone in the room and dialing in yesterday because some ministers were in Dublin, in the cabinet room and some were dialing in. But it was evident to everybody that there was division at the very highest level of government. That is between Tanisha Leo Varadkar and the at Millhone Martin and not. Just on the measures themselves, though, I think there is certainly a difference of emphasis there between the two men, but also on the way the process was managed and, you know, not to go into the Arcadian and protocols of of the organization of cabinet meetings.
But the shorthand version is there was supposed to be a after the Nevitt meeting on Monday and its advice delivered to the government late on Monday night. There was supposed to be a cabinet committee meeting to discuss new measures. And that was changed late on Monday night to a full cabinet meeting with the result that the proposed measures weren't thrashed out between politicians and senior officials in a cabinet committee before being brought to the full cabinet for a decision. The memo was prepared and discussed by the full cabinet meeting, and at least some of the ministers there thought that the whole thing was a bit of a dog's dinner, to be honest.
Can I ask you, I've heard some people suggest that one of the reasons why the Irish state did relatively well, let's say in than that, but relatively well in the first three or four months of the pandemic, was that because that we had a kind of a caretaker technocratic government, essentially quite a small group of people, all working closely together to kind of devise what the message was and to put the various measures in place which they put in place?
We now have a far more complex challenge because of where we are in the stage of this pandemic. We also have a much more variegated kind of a government with some of the tensions which which part has just described.
Does that contribute to the sense of confusion, which is definitely out there, or the sense of fracturing even which we see out there now?
Without a doubt, as a Bayville scientist, what I can tell you is that we face what we call a collective action problem, where we've got to try to get everybody to coordinate their behavior, to fight this virus. And we know that collective action problems are better solved. And what I mean by that is that people are more likely to do the right thing and behave in the way that they're being asked to behave. And the common good, the more strong, is the cohesiveness of the society, including the leadership of that society.
Now, we know that in multiple domains and we know it specifically for situations of crisis when people do tend to pull together as a group. And we saw that happen here in Ireland. But the fact that we could get politics largely out of the equation because we had a caretaker government probably was very important. I mean, the way to think about that is to try to think about the counterfactual. In other words, the what if it wasn't like that?
I mean, imagine instead we had an election coming up in the summer and we were in that climate. And would the politicians have pulled together and would they have supported each other and supported all of us in the way that they did have? They had an election coming. And I suspect the answer to that question is a resounding no. So almost certainly yes. I mean, the caretaker government helped us to feel like we were all part of one group.
But I think probably to trust our leadership as well, that what they were actually genuinely doing was looking at the evidence and doing the best thing for society in the face of a crisis. And I think early in the crisis, we definitely felt that what, of course, becomes so much more difficult is once you get past the flattening the curve where everybody knew that what we had to do was get infection down, you then get into the land of trade offs where we're trading off the risk of infection against the positive benefits of reopening bits of the economy and reengaging in social life.
As soon as you have those trade offs, different people are going to resolve in different ways. Different factions are going to have different priorities. And that kind of politics as usual business stuff starts to come back in. And we've seen that happen. And so that cohesiveness that was so important to our behavior early on becomes much harder to achieve.
I think, Hugh, if I can just add at this stage that it was always apparent and everybody knew that the the opening up was going to be a lot more difficult and more complex, an operation in all its respects than the closing down and the decisions necessarily made by democratically elected politicians, albeit on the advice of various types of experts, were always going to be, you know, I think more difficult to reach. That is. So, as Pete points out, when you have a different type of of government, I think a certain part of that was was certainly inevitable.
What I think is newsworthy and noteworthy in recent events and this is, I suppose, why we're reporting on it this morning, is that there appears to be difficulty at the centre of government in managing all that and managing the processes by which you come to those decisions. And that, I think, for the government is not a good sign, even in the in the aftermath of the.
The announcement yesterday, I mean, my my particular dayjob bailiwick relates to arts and culture, and there was huge confusion around about the new measures that were brought in that have been announced in relation to that. There couldn't be spectators at sporting events, whether those were impact. You know, quite a number of things that go away. Arts, first of all, Drew, would have a big open air tour. A lot of theatre companies have put a lot of effort into thinking how they could actually do what they do within the current constraints.
And it wasn't clear for several hours, I think that going to follow Senator Malcolm Byrne finally got an official recommendation that actually those things were all right that spoke to me of a government that had been completely ticked all the boxes before it came out and made that statement yesterday. That's only one example of it. But it seems to me to be a rather worrying example. I would say no.
I think it's pretty fair to say that all this was, you know, pretty pretty hastily done and there was contradictions throughout the program.
One thing that was pointed out by a number of people last night after the press conference is that the teacher said they weren't telling of the over 70s not to go on holidays, but and the chief medical officer said that they probably shouldn't be going to hotels. And I think those, you know, those sort of anomalies were riddled throughout the program. Now, a certain amount of that I think is inevitable, given the nature of what you're out of, of what the government is at, trying to, you know, set out guidelines for the operation of society in all its er in all its complexity.
But I think if the government is going to, you know, achieve the sort of consensus and enjoy the sort of public support that marked the early phase of this of the last government's reaction to the spread of the virus and to the pandemic, it will have to get an awful lot better at managing its own processes, such as those that have taken place over recent days. The meat, the advice from never the meeting of and the issuing of Nevitt advice, the recommendations, the discussion by cabinet in their public announcement.
It will have to get an awful lot better at that process than the events of the last 24 and 48 hours have exhibited.
Isn't that we're going to leave you go because I know you're going to be doing today. But listen, thanks for joining us. Thank you. Piece. We asked you to come in a few days ago was actually, as it turns out, I think the timing is pretty good because a lot of the questions which have been raised over the last 24 hours are questions which I think you are particularly well qualified to address. I'm sure some of our listeners have heard you on our other coronaviruses podcast, on other broadcast radio stations and and so on over the last few weeks and months.
And you've been a familiar voice on some of these issues, listening to you. Sometimes I do wonder and don't take this wrong. And the same way when I listen to some of the the the scientists over the last while, while we are in the midst of this terrible, awful, scarifying thing right now, we're also in the middle of this really interesting process from the point of view of the science and also from the point of view of the anthropology, I suppose, and the sociology of what's going on.
But basically, there's vast human experiment in how you coordinate against this this threat. Is it fair to say that there's something there's a silver lining to all this for you?
I'm not trying to use the expression silver lining. What I would say is it's been very energizing. I mean, the expression that I've used on a number of occasions is it's been like living in a lab as a scientist. It is absolutely fascinating and that's quite energizing at a time when being energised at work is an unusual thing. And I think I'm kind of fortunate to have that, although it's rather exhausting, to be honest. So, yes, there's some definite truth in what you say, and I certainly won't take it the wrong way.
I mean, if you study human behaviour and you are caught in the middle of a global pandemic and you're given a role, I mean, I'm on one of the effort subgroups. So we feed evidence and advice into this system. I mean, you can't not be completely fascinated by what is around you at the same time as what is happening from a kind of family point of view and society point of view is utterly awful. So, yes, I mean, there's absolutely truth in what you say.
You have you been surprised? I mean, over the last few months, I mean, in terms of what you anticipated might happen back in, let's say, February, early March, have you been surprised, by the way, that the society has, I suppose, comported itself over the last four or five months?
I've been surprised at numerous points. Yeah. One of the things that's interesting, though, is that some things were entirely predictable from a behavioral science point of view and have turned out to be true, even though I find them surprising. So I'll explain what I mean. I mean, when we first reviewed the behavioural evidence of how people respond in crises right at the start of this, the evidence suggests, as I said earlier, that people actually pull together much more than in normal times while at the same.
Time, quite often, authorities worry that everyone's going to panic and start to behave selfishly and exactly occurred and we saw that, I mean, I think it was genuinely, truly remarkable how many countries pulled together, including Ireland, in order to fight this crisis. Now, many people on a massive scale changed their behavior utterly and made large sacrifices for the common good. And I think that's an extraordinary thing to watch. I'm surprised by it, even though the scientific evidence told me that it was going to happen.
I think the other thing that's interesting that it was very clear right at the start of this that the UK and the US were going to be particularly difficult cases because they lacked the kind of societal cohesiveness that you need to solve these kind of collective action or public good problems that we're being thrown by this pandemic. I think that was clear way before they had worse cases than other countries. And unfortunately, you know, that as then turned out to be a very accurate prediction.
So that's been that's been something that's not surprising. It's been sort of fatalistic and awful to watch, really the just utter inevitability that American society, given how polarized it is and how it lacks cohesiveness, would fail to produce a coherent and effective response to this disease, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. Those are people, scientists. That's a miserable thing to watch. So that's kind of the opposite side of the coin, if you like. So, yes, some things are surprising, even though the science suggests will be there are other things not.
So there seems to be general consensus in the UK, for example, that the slowness in implementing full lockdown in the middle of March, I think is kind of a week, a week and a half after Ireland did did that that that was partly driven by a number of of assessments.
We won't even get into the whole herd immunity and whether or not that that that fed into that decision. But there was also at the time an impression that the British government was being advised that there would be lockdown fatigue, a phrase we're all familiar with now, but that that that would kick in very quickly. In other words, that British society would only stand for a lockdown for for a very few weeks. And that didn't turn out to be the case actually, when lockdown finally was implemented.
And when I heard that, first of all, I thought, oh, that must be the behavioural scientists who who gave that advice. That's what their job is, to analyze that kind of stuff, isn't it?
Do you have any insight where that advice came from? Some so just to be absolutely clear, in Ireland, we didn't give that advice. In fact, we advised that in these kind of collective action problems, people could actually make sacrifices and behave for the common good for quite long periods of time. So we gave not exactly the opposite advice, but certainly contrary advice to the Irish government. It is definitely true that somewhere the British government got advice that suggested that there would be a limited period for which people would be willing to change their lives and lifestyles in order to try and tackle this and that they should therefore try and time it for the perfect point to flatten the curve rather than go for it early.
I think that contributed to the delay in the lockdown in the U.K. and I think in the end they regret that and it cost lives. Now, where did it come from? All I can tell you is the large majority of UK behavioral scientists, the minute they heard about it, you know, formed a petition and wrote a letter saying they didn't know what the evidence for this was and that since that happened, all behavioral scientists to give advice to the government in the UK have done everything they can to distance themselves from this.
But it came from somewhere. Now I have my suspicions, but now I'm prepared to share publicly, I'm afraid. But everyone has rushed to deny that it was them that gave the advice. I think there's a broader, more important point here, though, here, which is this it probably is the case that some behavioral scientists said to the UK government that there might be a behavioural fatigue problem or a lockdown fatigue problem. The interesting thing is that when the majority of scientific opinion would not have gone with that, why did the UK government then use that evidence and jump on it?
And of course, the answer to that is that when the scientific evidence accords with the political view that the political masters have anyway, it is more likely to be taken on board, more likely to use an argument and more likely to be used quickly. And the problem really is that that idea of lockdown fatigue or wanting to delay the Johnson government wanted to do anyway was terribly scared of Lockland. It was absolutely against its instinct. So it grabbed hold of a piece of evidence or apparently a piece of evidence that turned out not to be because it suited it at the time.
And I think everybody now realises that was a mistake regretted and no one will own up to it.
To what extent, then, does behavioral science inform different government policies in this state and in other? I mean, one of the things that occurs to me about and it's been a subject of debate now over the last 24 hours or so, is that we frame these things as if governments make decisions and then, you know, police go out on the streets and make sure that everybody obeys the rules. And there was a bit of that, particularly at the outset, put roadblocks everywhere and that type of stuff.
But in fact, a lot of what governments do is they send out messages and they couched things in terms of advice and recommendations. And sometimes they prove not to be proved not to be as efficient as in the current debate over House parties and whether legislative change is needed. But for the most part, the Irish state did not like some Hobbesian leviathan, you know, crush, crush down on the people of Ireland to make sure they did what they were told.
And in fact, in many ways, the people were ahead of the government rules.
Yes, I think that's true. And where the behavioral science really kicks in and feeds into this is in some of the really more mundane stuff, stuff like have members of the public absorbed the public health messages accurately? Do they understand the situation they face? How accurately can they predict the risk they face in different social circumstances? Do they know what to do if they see certain patterns of symptoms? What if they see unusual patterns of symptoms? Do they understand that's possibly covid?
Do they understand what they need to do in order to get tested? Do they understand that it's free? Will they do that? What's motivating them to do that? So all the stuff for the behavioural change subgroup of effort has been feeding in is evidence in relation to those questions about individual behaviour. Now, what's then done with that? I think there's a number of uses. I mean, one is we get insight into what people understand and how they behave and how they're perceiving what's going on around them.
That means we get a better idea of what might work and what might not. But we also get a real idea of how to communicate with people to fill in the gaps in their knowledge to help them go out there about their daily lives.
What do they know better than other things? What do they need more help and support him? So those things become important, too. So a lot of it's actually about public health communication. And I think the behavioral science is fed, and I know it's fed directly into the public health communication that's been put together, how that's been phrased and worded. And in some cases, we've even pretested things like infographics to help people understand the symptom patterns better. So a lot of the communication that you've seen around you that's got across to the public and in fact, pretty effectively, as we know from the study, has got across to the public of our understanding of this disease.
A lot of that was either behaviorally tested or behaviorally informed by some science. And that's good, because all it's doing is it's essentially allowing the government to communicate better with its citizens. And for the large part, that's what Bayville Science has done during this crisis.
Yeah, and I think I would agree.
I think that that's been largely successful. I think in the initial lockdown period, we all became very familiar with the kind of graphic presentations of what social distancing meant and. How people should behave and those very strong bright yellow graphics that are still everywhere at the moment had, you know, had an impact. And I wrote a column about this last week in the Irish Times.
Actually, I think that the sort of narrative which was brought to the process by the the four phase plan for relaxation over the summer was something that people could understand as a concept. And also it gave, I suppose, a sense of agency and progress and improvement in some way. Now, I wonder, were in this kind of interregnum, the four phase thing seems to be over. And we were told last week that there's another color coded system in in play are being tested or something at the moment.
Do you know anything about that? A little bit and unfair and saying everything's a little bit diffuse at the moment, perhaps too diffuse.
I mean, I think one has to understand the incredible difficulty of the challenge that is being thrown at us here. I mean, this spike that we've got in cases now that is now proving to be such a big challenge and is quite high by the level of European countries has come as a shock and a surprise. And we're trying to deal with it. I think it's probably fair to say as well, if I'm honest, that its timing wasn't great.
I mean, there are very large numbers of public officials and scientists who had worked incredibly hard for a period of months. And finally, the case has got down to that. Few of them were looking to take a break. I was one of them, you know, and then up comes their spike at exactly that point where people thought, well, look, maybe we've got this thing under control. So I think there's a lot going on. I think the reason to go for the color coding thing, color coding has been very effective for communication in various areas.
So there's a lot of behavioral science that shows the color coding can be effective. So they're thinking of that because once you're in a state, a situation where it's no longer a question of just descending set of phases, but actually we might have to be raising or lowering a threat level, then it seemed to be a way that potentially one could communicate that more clearly. I worry about it a little bit because we've used color coding for terrorism threat levels in countries where that's a problem around the world.
And there's a little bit of a concern I have that people only take them seriously when it goes to red, that they don't really distinguish between the lower level as much as they should. So there's a kind of communication challenge there. But we do know that generally color coding systems actually work really well for things like communicating nutritional information and environmental information and so on. So maybe it'll be a useful communication tool. I don't know.
I mean, the other recording we're familiar with, which I honestly don't think has been a success over the last several weeks as there's been this concept of of green listed countries and regardless of, you know, the merits of demerits of some of that and how much threat has posed by the level of international travel we have at the moment, that was definitely a confused mess.
In fact, arguably, it still is a confused message as to whether one is advised that one can travel freely to some of those countries or one cannot depends on which government website you go to. There's subtle differences in words and whatever about the actual confusion that causes to somebody planning to travel or not to travel to those countries. It doesn't it doesn't bolster one's confidence in the overall message in the overall system. Yeah, I think that's fair enough. I mean, I think this is a massive coordination problem for government.
It's extremely difficult. I mean, you have an enormous number of agencies and departments that are trying to get consistent and coherent messages across the population and change them rapidly in response to events. And sometimes they slip up and things come out incoherently and we end up getting the right answer after several rounds of questioning or several days, and somebody's asking the right questions to the right person and people correcting the website. And we see all of that going on.
I mean, I think it's probably true that we gave the government a little bit more license earlier on in the pandemic than we are doing now in that regard. And I think some of that is probably a frustration about what's happening with I mean, I don't know yet whether we want to call this a second wave, but I mean, it's certainly starting to look like it could be. And that's what we're we're scared of, you know, and I think we're probably giving a little less license now than we were because we think they should begin their game together more.
And that's probably fair enough. What I would say as a behavioral scientist in all of this, though, is that I think we really need to learn the lessons of what's happened with this spike. And one of them is something that we had fed into the system. And I'm sure this argument was heard. But we'd heard from behavioral scientist in the United States that one of the problems was what we've started to call by. We hear him talk about the behavioral scientists on the Bayville change subgroup of effort.
It's what we call behavioral lag. So what happens is you lift restrictions and then you wait a couple of weeks and see what happens to the number of infections, because we know that's how long it takes the virus to circulate. And if we don't see much of a change in two or three weeks, we start to think to ourselves, well, OK, that restrictions going on right now doesn't seem to have much impact on infections. Actually, it turns out that when you lift a restriction, people are really, really cautious and behavior doesn't change straightaway.
There isn't a clamoring to get back out there. They start dipping their toe in the water. They start going about what we used to think of as normal business, a little piece at a time and start to feel more and more comfortable. So what actually happens is it takes five or six weeks for people's behavior to really change. I mean, what we are seeing now with this uptick in infection is the result of lifting the restrictions. And it's actually turned out that it has caused infections.
But the lag, the time lag it took to do it was longer than maybe we anticipated. So one of the things that's really important to learn here is how we've got ourselves into the situation that we've got ourselves from a behavioral point of view. And the answer at one of the answers to that, I think, is that it takes longer to get feedback about the impact that the lifting of restrictions has than we thought it does.
And can you offer any insight then into what the science says about a situation like this when one on one then reimpose restrictions? How how effective is that position and what's the sort of timeframe there?
Well, I think the other lesson that we've got to learn is related to the question you just asked, which is, in all honesty, what this is telling us is that we went too fast. And here is something that is really interesting. The public knew it. So there is a phenomenon in behavioral science called the wisdom of crowds, which means that when you have a problem that is too complex for any one individual to solve. So even the most expert person doesn't know the right answer.
If you aggregate lots and lots of people's views, you're probably going to be more accurate than the best expert. Now, if you think what's likely to happen to infections in covid depends on this enormous number of factors. You know, right across society, all sorts of different sectors, all sorts of different behaviors, all sorts of different age groups, as well as the virology and immunology issues. It's far too complex a problem for any individual to know what's going to happen to infections and be able to predict it.
But if you look to what the public thought, the public increasingly thought we were going too fast as we accelerated the lifting of restrictions. Actually, the average view among the public was this is getting too risky and we're going too quickly. Now, it may be a coincidence, but it may not. It may be a wisdom of crowds phenomenon. When you aggregated everybody's views together, the average view turned out to be right.
We went a little bit too fast and we've paid the consequences in my pop psychology knowledge, which is all I have of behavioral science and the way that people's minds work. And Michael Lewis's book about Kahneman and SWERSKY, who wrote about heuristics in the way in which humans frame problems and the way in which they're going to the way in which they will they will address those problems. And I think I'm right in saying that one of the one of the points that they make is that humans overemphasize danger and risk and the downside of taking a choice and under emphasize the positive choice.
I suppose that could just be framed as caution. And is that would that play into it all? The kind of caution some from people that we saw that people were more cautious than their government?
So you have to you have to distinguish a couple of things. I think the fact you're referring to is what kind of antibiotic you referred to as loss aversion, which is one of their great contributions to behavioral science, which is to say that people wait in their decision making losses more strongly than they do equivalent gains. So when you give something up, it's more painful than when you acquire the same thing, gives you pleasure. It's like there's an estimate.
I don't know whether loss aversion played into our perception of this, what I do definitely know is that, yes, risk perceptions are really, really important. And what I'm suggesting to you is that actually the public's risk perception on average turned out to be more accurate than the risk perceptions that officialdom ended up operating often by officialdom. I mean, the whole combination of the system that led us to make some decisions. I do think there was a difference there in the perceived risk.
And I think throughout this crisis and I think journalism, to be honest, is partly to blame for this. I mean, I'm a former journalist. I understand what type of people journalists are. I mean, they tend to be more outgoing individuals. And I think they're struggling with the lock down an awful lot. The general public has never been clamoring for a rapid lifting of restrictions at any point. And all of the behavioral surveys that we have shown has shown that the kind of public discourse that's going on in the media and amongst the politicians for lifting restrictions was always well ahead of the public desire to see those restrictions lifted.
And that continues to be the case.
Now, can we see the public, though, as a homogenous group? I mean, without getting into blaming young people? End of things.
I mean, there is a reality that this is one of the very particular things about this disease, is that it doesn't have a very serious effect on the vast majority of younger people. And if you add that up with the fact that younger people's lives are probably more profoundly affected in many ways than than older people are, and also the fact that we know that young males, for example, are, you know, more inclined to take risks than than than than older people.
Is that a group of people who perhaps, you know, a more high risk in terms of their behavior being more high risk?
Yeah, we consistently see that in all the behavioral studies that we've run, young men are more inclined to take risks. They're more optimistic about the possibility of avoiding this disease. They wash their hands less they're less inclined to call the GP. I mean, there's a whole load of things whereby young men stick out. I think it's really important to understand that the individual differences are not driving all of this. I mean, universal behaviors are more important, actually, than the differences between individuals, even though it's true that these different social groups do behave in different ways.
So, yeah, and I think that's really, really important because overwhelmingly what we're going to have to learn to do if we're going to live with this virus for as long as it looks like we've got to live with it, then keeping that cohesiveness is absolutely crucial. And there's a really important point here. People we know from behavioral science and this is true in normal times and in normal, boring areas of business regulation that most people wouldn't know anything about.
But there's a general finding that is true, which is if you want people to comply for the public good with a behavior, if they start to feel that what's being asked of them is somehow unfair, they will reduce that compliance. They will not comply even at a cost to themselves. They will actually do things that are against their own interest to protest, essentially, and I think there's a real danger of that here.
I mean, if we get into a situation where we start blaming young people, there's actually a danger that the young people will simply turn around and say, well, frankly, if that's the way you're going to talk to a screw, you will keep taking risks. And there's a lot of behavioral science that suggests if we treat them that way, that may well be what what happens. It's really important if you want to keep group cohesiveness together, that you are empathetic to the members of that group and you understand the truth of the matter is, and actually this is one of the earliest bits of behavioral evidence that the sub-group fed in to an effort.
The truth of the matter is that young people have taken the biggest psychological hit of anyone in our society during this pandemic. And we can see that in the data on average Irish people, their well-being went down the equivalent of us all being made simultaneously unemployed. We took a massive well-being hit as a result of this global pandemic on average. But that well-being hit was bigger among younger people than it was among older people, even though the younger people were less at risk.
And the reason is because their well-being and their happiness depends much more on their social and relationship lives that got absolutely destroyed. It's also true, of course, that the younger people took a bigger economic hit as well. But I think it's primarily a social phenomenon. So if we turn around and start blaming them because they are coming back out more quickly and starting to enjoy themselves more quickly, we run a real risk actually of alienating them and losing that group cohesiveness.
We need to understand how tough it is for them. We need to understand what was asked of them and how miserable it made very, very many of them feel. And the data across multiple surveys, including even central statistics, office surveys and wellbeing, shows that many, many young people have been made utterly miserable by this pandemic because, you know, think about it. It would if you unsettled family circumstances, this lockdown, enjoying spending more time with the kids.
I'm not saying I'm enjoying lockdown, but it has some silver linings. You know, if you're a single young person, you know, who wants to be finding a good relationship, wants to be enjoying a social life, that's what makes you happy. It's your friends and your relationship life that makes you happy. What's happened here is utterly miserable, and we need to be empathetic to that.
And what about my fear that this is going to get worse in terms of those kind of social impacts and psychological impacts that we had? We had very good weather for the first three months of the pandemic. And certainly for me, that was one of the one of the better aspects of the whole thing, that one could be outdoors a lot of the time.
Paul Collins said to us in this podcast last week that outdoors is the is the enemy of covid in many ways, I think both in terms of the disease itself and people's psychological health, where we've had summer, if we're still in some of some situation, some framework similar to what we're in now or worse in November, December, January, what effect does that have apart from the individual psychology?
What effect does it have on the psychology of the of the nation of the group?
Look, I share some of your concerns, but I can't be sure at all because we're in such uncharted waters. I want to make a couple of points to you, though. One is your point about indoors versus outdoors is absolutely vital. We can see in the data that nothing makes people more happy during this period than getting outside and getting outdoors. It makes a real difference. So as the weather gets worse, keeping that up is really, really important.
So, you know, even if you're buying waterproofs online to allow you to do it and you're getting out in the drizzle, get out there. It's making a real difference to people's psychological well-being. And we can see that all over the data. The other thing that's interesting about indoors versus outdoors is that that's one of the areas that our studies show the public is underestimating. And what I mean by that is this. We asked members of the public a representative sample to judge the level of risk involved in different activities.
And we also asked an expert sample of over 50 of the country's leading public health virologist and immunologist to do the same study. And we compared the results of how well the public understood the risks of covid. And generally that understood it pretty well then understood. You know, the number of people in a group matters whether you can stay two metres apart matters. They got all of that. The one thing that they underestimated relative to the experts more than anything else was the difference between being indoors and outdoors.
So actually, the public haven't fully absorbed the fact that getting outdoors is not risky. And we can see in the data it's really good for your psychological health. So holding meetings outdoors, you know, not meeting people in restaurants, but going for walks and getting out there is an absolutely crucial thing for people's psychological health. But back to your more general point. I mean, sure, as we come into the winter, I worry about this, too, and I particularly worry about how we're going to cope with the ongoing uncertainty.
One of the questions is in many European countries, I think there are numbers from Paris and there's no from German numbers from German cities. And I think Italian cities showing that in terms of office workers, maybe 70 percent or so, 70 to 80 percent have returned to their offices in the UK. That number is much lower. And I don't know if you have any numbers just from walking around Dublin City Centre, I would say it's also much lower in Ireland.
Why would there be that differential?
I'll be completely honest with you. I don't really know. I mean, it's possible that European countries felt that they could regain. Office environments better than we could. We have quite high density office environments. I mean, it's possibly to do with that is possibly just some kind of cultural difference that I genuinely do not know. I mean, what you're saying is absolutely true, though. I mean, we have made a big thing out of people not working in the office unless they need to.
And I think largely people have stuck to that. And I think that's less true in other European countries. Interesting observation. I genuinely don't know.
It is interesting. One of the thing I did want to ask about, because it has been intriguing to me and it does seem to me to be a very much tie in with behavioral behavioral science and the way in which messaging and the society interact. And that's the whole question of masks.
And it's been used as a political bludgeon in some countries, particularly in the particularly in the United States.
But even setting that aside, and I think back to early March, when, in fact, those people who even thought about it were probably saying or the government tells us not to use masks because we thought of them as hospital grade medical grade masks and that they needed to be preserved for for the use of frontline workers. And then the confusion about masks versus coverings.
And we've gone from a situation where you used to be I went into a shop and maybe I was the only person in it with a mask. And now you go into a supermarket and it's really unusual to see a person without a mask.
And the whole process of that, how that how has that developed over the last five or six months? And what does it tell us about peer pressure, group pressure, the way in which messages are rolled out, assimilated and acted on?
That is a great question. And I think it's a really important one because it is a really interesting example of what is possible that we can learn from here. So you're absolutely right. There was total confusion about masks to start with. There's a good reason for that. The science was ambiguous. There was some science suggesting there might even backfire. And it took a while for the science to settle down and for us to be where it should be clear that the majority of studies were suggesting, you know what, actually, yeah, OK.
On average, these things are beneficial and we should be using them. So when it's when it settled down, the advice started to change. And we start to say, yes, people need to be wearing these masks. Now, here's what's really interesting. We started from what as a people scientist, in the jargon you'd call an uncooperative equilibrium. That is to say, I would estimate that something like 80 percent of people were not wearing masks in shops and other public places.
Right. That's an uncooperative equilibrium. What do we mean by that? What we mean is when I look around, I see most other people not wearing them as well, which means I have even more of an incentive because I'm fitting in with the majority. I don't feel any peer pressure to do it. You know, I don't feel that everybody is doing this for the common good. And I'm the one that's slipping up. You know, I'm actually in the majority and we're just not wearing them steadily over a period of time.
As the advice changed and the science changed, more and more people started wearing them. And then, of course, they became mandatory. And what you see is that equilibrium completely shift. So now it's 80-20 the other way. In my experience in my part of Dublin, that's what I see. I see at least 80 percent of people in the supermarket wearing a mask, probably more actually now. And the really interesting is watching the behavior of the people who aren't because they're worried and they're looking around and they're worried that other people are judging them.
And you can see them trying to avoid eye contact with people. You can see them staring at their shoelaces. I mean, all the things that happen when people feel that they're going to get on the end of social disapproval. So the equilibrium is change to be a cooperative one. Now, there's really important lessons in there. It tells you that we can take coordinated action and change up, even if we start from a position of confusion and ambiguity and argument.
You know, if the science becomes clear, if the communication becomes clear enough, and if we establish those norms and we get people to realize why, it is in everybody's interest that we all do this, which is what drives behavior and collective action problems, then it's actually possible to change people's behavior for the common good and have people comply at a much higher rate. So the masks example is a really interesting example of exactly how these collective action problems work.
I'm not very optimistic note. We'll leave it there. Peatland, listen, thanks very much indeed for joining us. It is great to have you on. Thanks also to Pat for joining us.
Also, thanks also to Susanne Brenan, who produced the show today. Let me just encourage you one more time. If you haven't already done so to sign up for Irish Times, dot com slash subscribe, you can get the first one for just one euro. And if you want to get in touch with us, you can email us our politics podcast at Irish Times dot com until the next time. Thanks very much indeed for listening.