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Why the pandemic is more confusing than ever

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Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University
Double exposure of subject with a mask on and a mask off on Thursday, August 19, 2021.

In the spring of 2020, pandemic precautionary guidelines were fairly straightforward: Stay at home, interact with as few people outside of your household as possible, and when you must go out, wear a mask. Then, as the new year came, so, too, did vaccines. And then the guidelines changed. Masks came off. Crowds assembled for sports games, concerts, and festivals. We hugged our grandparents and friends again. It was termed “hot vax summer,” and we were breaking free from cautiously tight social circles to gather together in-person in ways we hadn’t since early 2020. 

But the pandemic isn’t over and COVID-19 hasn’t been eradicated. That means we’re still contemplating questions of just how cautious we should be as we mix more socially. And, Northeastern behavioral experts say, as social norms are generally situational and prone to change, figuring out how to behave has gotten a lot more confusing and complicated than it was when the pandemic began. 

“The ground rules have changed,” says Rory Smead, associate professor of philosophy at Northeastern, who researches the evolution of social behavior. “We have the variants and we also have vaccinations. When there weren’t a lot of variants around and we didn’t have vaccinations, it was sort of easy to have a one-size-fits-all rule [about how to behave]. Now, it’s not easy to make a straightforward decision.”

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