Mayors jumping queues

One benefit (with distance!) of living through the first year (2020) of Covid was the lesson in ambiguity. Never forget, the thing we did the most of was stock up on toilet paper. It’s silly with hindsight, but at one time the zeitgeist was making up songs so we all washed our hands the appropriate amount. With those actions as a reference, it makes a bit more sense that issues like masks, contact tracing, limited gathering, and vaccines were confusing. How might things have gone better?

One potential solution to vaccine hesitancy is a skin-in-the-game approach. Don’t tell me what to do, Nassim Taleb might bark, tell me what you do do. But that can lead to the suggestion that someone is jumping the queue. This pushback came up, rightly, but there is at least one potential solution.

“I think there is a way to do it. We advised mayors and their communication directors to approach it more like: ‘We are opening up a new site, let me show you how safe and effective it is, here’s the shot in my arm.’ Definitely don’t do it in the moment when there is extreme vaccine scarcity, do it as a symbolic moment that the floodgates are opening. It’s about the time, place, and moment.” – Carolina Toth, Inside the Nudge Unit, June 2021

What I liked about this example was the second-order thinking Toth offered. It’s not the line jumping per se but it’s line jumping and-I-can’t-get-mine. Lines aren’t about waiting. Lines are about fairness.

Imagine queueing up for a spring training baseball game. You’re in sunny Florida. It’s March. It’s seventy-eight degrees, Fahrenheit. The sun is out. It’s a beautiful day.

Being a well-prepared baseball fan you bought tickets ahead of time. Section C, Row 4, Seats 15-18. They’re behind the third-base dugout. You told your thirteen-year-old not to be on their phone when a left-handed batter is up. Who knows if they listened. Amid these happy thoughts you see that two groups ahead of you in line a party of two has become a party of six. The duo was saving spots for their friends. Do you care?

Probably not? Your seats are your seats.

There (probably) won’t be another 2020. However any situation can be helped by getting to the first principles: how do viruses transmit, what’s wrong with mayors jumping queues? It’s these answers that remove the ambiguity of a situation and get us all sorted.

Queues exist to solve allocation problems, like the New York Marathon.

Numeracy + Psychology

One of the consistent behavioral psychology findings is the framing effect. People judge what is pointed out and consider the number attached to it. Two out of every three dentists approve chewing no-sugar gum. Sure, but do they caveat that with increased flossing? Heck, no one cares. The thinking goes that if it was flossing that was important someone would have mentioned it.

This effect is most often seen in medical communication and Matt Yglesias captures it perfectly here:

But that headline is good. It’s salient – 4 people. It’s got friction. The real surprise is that they didn’t say ‘warn’ rather than ‘said’.

This kind of psycho-logic-magic needs countered with another kind of psycho-logic-magic.

We can assume two things work: (1) that people pay attention to and value what someone points out to them. This is normal, helpful, and completely understandable. It works. Most things that most people say are relevant to our lives. (2) that new news works. Different is interesting. This is also, normally helpful and understandable.

Here’s the pitch. This is the angle, the message. Here’s the psycho-logic-magic for vaccine interventions: opportunity cost.

If you’re pro-vaccine point out all the things that will be back to normal once people get it. Grandparents will visit grandchildren. Sports will resume. Christmas won’t be cancelled. Freedom and fellowship. Dining out and date nights. Cruise ships and college trips. Find whatever people value and point it out. People do not consider the opportunity cost unless it is explicit.

Closing note: if SkininTheGame is the ultimate signal, my wife had her second dose last weekend.