Perspective: What Human Behavior in a Crisis Can Tell Us

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

At this unprecedented time, human behavior will be part of our solution but it’s also part of the problem.

In times of crisis we, humans, often react instinctively and with haste. We isolate the problem at hand and pursue a direct, focused solution, most often in isolation of existing environmental factors. Partial solutions to complex, systemic problems—and most challenging problems in the world are systemic—never lead to long-term, sustainable solutions.

As the world grapples with the systemic challenges revealed by the novel coronavirus and its continued spread, it’s important to look at this crisis for what it is: a global pandemic with a variety of important factors. To control and overcome it requires the implementation of sound policy and an acceptance of the role of human behavior in the process.

Factors specific to COVID-19 include the speed and method of infection, human behavior in response to the threat to their health, risk to economies of various countries and the world financial markets, diffusion of information about the virus itself, the pace of globalization, the availability of societal resources, and the capabilities of the healthcare systems to deal with the consequences of the pandemic. All of which are essential in selecting the best policies to mitigate the crisis facing society.

My research on complex systems indicates that understanding interactions among system components is often even more important than understanding the nature of components themselves. Examples of these are epidemics, conflicts, cancer, economy and ecology. I am especially interested in social complex systems, in which human behavior determines the long-term outcomes of such systems.

I’ve analyzed a variety of complex systems, and while I’ve not investigated the research related to this virus, I can certainly draw parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and lessons from previous research:

  • Test early and often, including those who do not show any symptoms of the disease

  • Track aggressively persons who were in touch with the infected people

  • Severely restrict social interactions early on (social distancing) to cut the ability for the virus to spread

  • Rigorously restrict the ability of people to travel

  • Strongly limit border crossings

These are just a few measures that, when put in place, affect drastically the economic wellbeing of a country. Though, the impact would be for a much shorter period of time than what is the case now, when we are trying to flatten the curve of infections. However, I believe that with the right measures, it’s possible this curve might be both flattened and shortened.

The key to this is human behavior. If orders are followed and safe behaviors are practiced, the outcome of a crisis will result in less severe consequences, for both the number of deaths and economic decline.

Forecasting the most effective approach to facing a multifaceted pandemic such as COVID-19 is through the development of a statistical model that reflects demographic and other attributes (biological, healthcare, transportation, political and metrological) of the population. When aspects of human behavior (real-life phenomena such as tendencies, propensities and preferences) are added, we can see accurate computational simulators of societies—and are able to test and evaluate policies intended to mitigate or eliminate biological, economic or military threats as well as evaluate the consequences of decisions designed to best protect citizens and the economy. 

While society is facing a new level of uncertainty amid the spread of COVID-19, what is certain is our behavior can either be the solution or part of the problem.

Mirsad Hadzikadic is director of the Complex Systems Institute in the College of Computing and Informatics at UNC Charlotte. Through research funded by the National Science Foundation, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and private industry, he and his colleagues have conducted computational research and designed simulations that examine human behavior in multiple scenarios: military, medical, conflict, financial, social media, technological and economic.