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Vanderbilt behaviorist accurately predicted current Tennessee COVID-19 surge six weeks ago.


NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Mike Osborne)  --  Predictions made last month by a Vanderbilt researcher about what would happen when Gov. Bill Lee allowed the Tennessee economy to reopen now sound prophetic.

Consumer behaviorist Dr. Kelly Goldsmith made her predictions just days after Gov. Lee allowed his statewide shelter at home order to expire. She said then “my fear is that when these restrictions start to lift, people just aren’t going to be able to control themselves.”

Dr. Goldsmith went on to predict Tennesseans would be hard pressed to “continue to wash their hands, and stand six feet apart, and do the right thing.” She accurately predicted that people would pack the honky-tonks on Broadway as soon as they reopened.

The Vanderbilt researcher’s predictions are based in behavioral science. She notes that people have a strong psychological need to feel “normal,” to stay comfortably surrounded by the familiar. Put simply, crisis situations push us out of our comfort zones.

Goldsmith concluded ““Knowing how badly people want to feel normal, it’s scary to me to think about how quickly the wheels could come off the bus here with respect to all the behaviors we’ve been working so hard to put in place.”

Six weeks after the Vanderbilt behaviorist made those predictions, Tennessee is seeing a surge in new cases of COVID-19, along with rising rates of hospitalization. On the day Dr. Goldsmith spoke in May, health officials pegged the state’s four day running average of new infections at 357 cases. On Monday, just six weeks later, that four day average had climbed to 1066 cases.

Gov. Bill Lee has stated repeatedly that his strategy for bringing the coronavirus outbreak under control relies heavily on state residents acting responsibly. In what has become something of a personal mantra, the governor has confidently stated time and again he believes Tennesseans will step up and take “personal responsibility” for protecting themselves and others during the health crisis.

This past week, the governor doubled down on this approach by suggesting that it’s time for the state’s role in addressing the outbreak to begin to diminish. He said in part “now we all know in this society what causes this, how it spreads, and how we can protect ourselves from it. So that changes the responsibilities that government has to provide safeguards.”

Dr. Goldsmith sees a different outcome. She asserts that the pandemic will be a “real wake up call” for Tennessee and the nation. She notes that Americans pride themselves on their independence, but says coronavirus will teach us just how interdependent we are.

“COVID has really shown us how connected we are,” Dr. Goldsmith said, “not just in terms of the supply chain and businesses, which are obviously interconnected globally, but really in terms of individual-level health. We kind of rise or fall together.”

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