It’s barely three days into India’s lockdown and ‘social distancing’ is already the new normal.

What exactly does social distancing mean? Quite simply, it means reducing contact with people. Or, in the age of the coronavirus, it means reducing the physical space between people to stop the illness from spreading.

Essentially, we need to stay inside and if we step outside, we should maintain a distance of 1 meter from other people, especially if they are sneezing or coughing. 

You’d imagine social distancing would be next to impossible in India, one of the world’s most densely populated countries. You couldn’t be more wrong. 

Indians have made social distancing—or more precisely, physical distancing—a daily habit.  

Look at how people are lining up outside places like grocery stores and banks, for instance. Videos and photographs from across the country show them standing in painted white circles and squares a few feet apart outside milk booths and vegetable shops.

Compare that with images before the coronavirus arrived. It was normal for people to throng local grocery stores or stand cheek-by-jowl in banks without a second thought.

Isn’t it extraordinary to see a society switch from complete acceptance of a high level of physical proximity to taking such drastic physical distancing precautions? And that too, almost overnight?

What caused this sudden shift in behavior? Evolutionary psychologists Paul Rozin and Edward B. Royzman say that humans (actually, all animals!) have an innate bias towards attending to messages that create a sense of fear. We want to preserve our lives. We need to survive. 

And daily media reports on the death toll and the leap in the number of COVID-19 cases appeal to this very bias. 

Another reason people follow the behavior of others lies in the theory of Social Proof,  a term coined by psychology professor Robert Cialdini. Social Proof is a psychological phenomenon where people copy the actions of others because they believe that if everyone, including political and business leaders, is doing it, it has to be right. 

Seeing the number of countries closing borders and top multinationals enforcing physical distancing drives us to take similar precautions.

That’s why not only are schools, markets, cinemas and malls in India shut under the lockdown, but we are all also trying to faithfully practice social distancing in our everyday lives. 

Which of these behavioral principles do you think convinced you to practice social distancing? As we stare at more than two weeks of lockdown, don’t drop this new habit. But, at the same time, don’t let the physical barriers stop you from social bonding. Stay in touch with family and friends. Virtually, of course! 

Haripriya Dalmia is a consultant with Learning Impact at Harappa Education.

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