Newswise — When Italians self-isolating during the COVID-19 outbreak were presented with a hypothetical situation in which orders to remain at home would be for shorter periods than they had expected, they were pleasantly surprised and said they would be more willing to stay in isolation.

But people negatively surprised to hear that the hypothetical extensions of the orders would be for longer than they had anticipated said they would be less willing to maintain or increase their isolation.

These findings, from a new study co-authored by Johns Hopkins University economist Mario Macis, sheds new light on people’s willingness to self-isolate. The study, a working paper produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research, also highlights the importance of effective communication of stay-at-home orders by public officials, says Macis.

Macis, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, says the study’s main finding caught him and his research colleagues off-guard.

“More than surprising, it was eye-opening. When stay-at-home orders were extended longer than expected, people become less willing to increase and more likely to decrease self-isolation efforts. The result was stronger for individuals who were already fully complying with the recommended self-isolation measures (including not leaving the house except for emergencies). This was the eye-opening part. The efforts of compliant individuals should not be taken for granted,” Macis says.

Noting that some U.S. officials have advocated setting an all-clear date when social distancing would end, Macis says the paper doesn’t support such an approach.

“Our study shows that negative surprises can jeopardize compliance with social-distancing measures,” he says. “The epidemic is severe, and there is fundamental uncertainty about how long these measures would need to stay in place to be effective. Therefore, a prudent approach would require making people aware that this could be a protracted effort. This does not mean leaving the date open-ended, but just transparently communicating that people should get ready for a prolonged self-isolation period. Emphasizing that the measures will end by a certain date might generate falsely optimistic expectations, which might then translate into disappointment when the measures are extended.”

Strong enforcement policies such as fines and geo-tracking have also been widely discussed as ways to keep people indoors. Macis calls them “important signals.”

“Italy and many U.S. states and cities are using them to reinforce the message that people need to stay home. However,” he says, “it is unclear that compliance can be achieved with fines alone. Plus, monitoring and enforcement are costly. There is a role for communication, persuasion, and expectations-management.”

Besides Macis, the paper’s co-authors are Guglielmo Briscese of the University of Chicago, Nicola Lacetera of the University of Toronto, and Mirco Tonin of the Free University of Bozen-Bolzan.