Want people to stay home? Lose the sledgehammer, behavioural scientists say

·3 min read

As the snow deepens and temperatures drop, behavioural scientists say now's the time to promote recreation that's closer to home for Ottawans, so they're not tempted to cross into Quebec for a ski or snowshoe outing.

Even before the lockdown measures came into effect on Boxing Day, Ontario had advised against crossing provincial borders unless for essential reasons. Now the province is recommending anyone who returns from a trip outside Ontario self-isolate for two weeks, even if they're only crossing provincial borders.

Officials have clarified that recreation is not considered an essential reason for travel, nor is visiting a second home or chalet in another jurisdiction.

The National Capital Commission (NCC), which oversees green spaces on both sides of the Ottawa River, also encourages people to stick to areas that are "closest to their homes."

Despite that advice, the NCC sold a record number of passes to the Gatineau Park this year, many of them to Ontario residents. According to some local officials, the pandemic isn't stopping some people from crossing the Ottawa River into Quebec, just like they always have.

Find substitutes for Gatineau Park

Sasha Tregebov, director of Toronto-based Behavioural Insights Team Canada, which works with government and non-profits to apply behavioural science to public policy, said if Ontario really wants to stop interprovincial travel, the government should promote safe alternatives.

Trevor Pritchard/CBC
Trevor Pritchard/CBC

"We found that substituting one behaviour for a similar one is much easier and more likely to build compliance than asking people to stop the behaviour all together," he said on Tuesday.

"If people are habitually going into Gatineau [Park] to ski, what's the nearest thing on the Ontario side of the border that would enable the same activity?"

Tregebov also suggests governments investigate why people are crossing the border for non-essential reasons: is it simple ignorance of the rules, or perhaps because they haven't fully bought into the reasoning behind the restrictions?.

If it's the latter, Tregebov said it's important to explain to people exactly why their behaviour could put other members of their community at risk, and appeal to the conscience of the majority who generally wants to play by the rules.

Communicate with joy and fun

Laura Scrimgeour, a Gatineau-based behavioural scientist and co-founder of Strategic Bias, which consults for the government on environmental and health issues, also stresses the importance of emphasizing local options instead of threatening with rules and consequences.

Laura Scrimgeour
Laura Scrimgeour

"All through this pandemic, a lot of health organizations and governments have been using what we call threat messages," she said on Monday. "But there's a whole other side to communicating — with joy and with fun."

She suggests governments and public health organizations link to local Ottawa recreation trails so people who want to ski or snowshoe consider their own backyard first.

That said, she acknowledged the unique difficulty facing officials in Ottawa and Gatineau, where many residents already cross the interprovincial border for essential reasons such as work, medical appointments and family obligations.

"Thousands of people in this one city work north of the river and live south, or work south and live north. Crossing the river is something that many of us, myself included, do on almost a daily basis," she said.

Avoiding the sledgehammer

If behaviour doesn't change, and if stopping travel between the provinces to control COVID-19 becomes more imperative than it already is, Scrimgeour said fines and police enforcement might work, but warns such a "sledgehammer" response can have unintended consequences.

In the spring, provincial border closures in Canada sparked lawsuits and criticism from civil rights advocates who called the measures unconstitutional.

"If all you need to do is put in a finishing nail, you're probably going to do more damage with a sledgehammer," she said.