Isolation Amnesia

One of the surest ways to change a habit is to forget you ever had that habit. That’s something happening to millions of people this month as most of us go through the shocking transition to isolating at home during the current pandemic. Longstanding habits will continue to slip away in the months to come.

As people stay at home, the place where the risk of becoming infected or infecting others is lowest, they are forgetting commercial habits of every kind. Think of this as “isolation amnesia.” As people isolate as a matter of safety or principle, and as they focus their energy in the direction of maximizing safety again and again, it erases their intention to go do the other things they might have done instead. It changes their identity so that the previous habits can no longer be accessed. To be sure, this is not everyone, but for each person who is pining for the day when they can go back to their favorite restaurants, there are two or three who have all but forgotten that they ever frequented a restaurant.

With baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, and other professional sports suspended, there are people already forgetting that they previously identified as fans. Shoppers who now carefully calculate every visit to a store will not be easily persuaded that they used to visit five to ten stores a week on a whim. If that’s true, they would ask, what did they buy in all those shopping trips? Not many purchases seem so important in the current context as people focus their intention on surviving an illness that appears to have a mortality rate above 1 percent.

Even the movie habit is being broken. Many analysts had imagined that people stuck at home would be more interested in movies than ever, and that was a sensible guess, but statistics so far are not bearing that out. As most major movie releases are postponed or production suspended, the whole movie category is looking less interesting than it has in two or three decades. Nor are people going back to the video games they dropped three to five years ago or buying books in large numbers.

I am hearing of people now finding time to read books, but this is not yet translating into sales. In general, they are reading one book that they already had on the shelf or on the bedside table. I have yet to hear of anyone buying multiple books to read this month. The spike in book sales that some in the book business had started to boast of has so far not materialized.

Even television has not benefited from so many people being at home. It is hard to explain why, but people are not watching much more television even though the opportunity is there. Possibly the dire news seen on television is driving people away from the screen. As more people lose jobs and there is less money to spend, the TV audience can only shrink further.

This mass interruption of habits is a disaster for the commercial interests that are built on building, reinforcing, and exploiting habits. A habit, once broken, does not come back easily. It can be rebuilt if there is a compelling reason for it, but most consumers had also fallen into unconscious patterns that weren’t so useful.

I am not suggesting that consumers everywhere are suddenly becoming conscious of their habits and decisions. Some are, of course — that happens to some degree after every shocking event — but what I am describing here is what is happening to consumers without any conscious decision or intervention. Consumers are simply forgetting many of their old habits after being forced out of their old routines. They are changing without seeing that they are changing and without knowing why. Psychologically, when people do not know why they have changed, it is that much more difficult to get them to go back.

What has happened to online shopping is one of the best indications of what is changing. You certainly might imagine that consumers stuck at home with many stores closed would make more purchases online. To an extent this is happening, but the new online purchases are not that interesting. Disposable diapers and hand sanitizer are selling well, but sales of more strongly styled and branded items like clothing, furniture, and appliances have declined as much online as they have in stores. They seem to be following the pattern seen with cars, where the sales chart looks like it fell off a cliff. Consumers are just not thinking about these things right now.

Rationally, people won’t need whole categories of purchases as long as they are staying at home. What will a new car do while we are not driving anywhere? Does fashion really exist when you are only wearing it around the apartment? How up-to-date does a mobile phone need to be for a person who is no longer so mobile?

The well-known arc of a pandemic only serves to reinforce these changes in habit. There will never be a day when anyone can honestly give the all-clear signal so that everyone can rush back out into the world all at once. Perhaps after some number of months, the number of cases and deaths will fall to a lower level that makes a few people feel safe to go out again. When that happens, though, inevitably some of them will fall ill too and a small fraction of those will die as a result, dissuading others for a little while longer. The risk of illness might fall by 2 percent from one week to the next. The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance tends to prevent people from making a decisive change in their behavior based on such a slow change in circumstances.

I don’t think anyone knows how this will all come out, but it is easy to conclude that the idea of going back to the way things were before is probably impossible. The physical form of the commercial world will have to change, drastically in some places, for people to feel reasonably safe from the illness of current concern and others that will follow. To simplify the issue, wherever there are chairs in large numbers, they will somehow have to be placed farther apart, not just in arenas and schools, but perhaps in buses and offices also. Whole categories of businesses will not be able to make this transition.

Quite simply, what we are seeing this month is a pattern interrupt on a scale that the world has not seen before except in civilizations that perished. Habits are being broken, more habits than we knew we had. Civilization will not break down, but some things will have to give way, and at this stage, we cannot yet say exactly what and how.

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