How is it that today nobody has patience anymore

Matthias Sutter: "If I stick with it today, tomorrow will be more successful"


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In order to contain the corona virus, we should stay at home if possible, avoid unnecessary trips outside, and hardly meet friends. And that for an indefinite long time. A few weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced difficult months. The Germans should be sensible and patient and adhere to the corona protective measures. But how does it actually work, patience? The behavioral economist and author Matthias Sutter uses scientific experiments to research the relationship between people and patience.

ZEIT ONLINE: Mr Sutter, for the second time this year we are in a Germany-wide partial lockdown. Do you understand that some people run out of patience?

Matthias Sutter: Of course, this uncertainty is exhausting. We all wonder when it will get better. On the other hand, unfortunately, it has to be said that getting impatient in a situation that requires patience has not helped anyone. It only makes matters worse. Because the uncertainty remains, it will still take the same time. Or even longer if people no longer comply with the hygiene regulations.

ZEIT ONLINE: Can you always pull yourself together so well?

Sutter: Pulling it together is a big word. There are days when I also think: It would be good if it finally stopped now. I am looking for optimism. It helps me that a vaccine should actually come soon. Hope is good for me too. But I also have to remind myself not to get cocky about it. Even if the vaccine comes, it will be a long time before everyone is vaccinated.


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ZEIT ONLINE: Why was the first partial lockdown in March easier for us?

Sutter: That is a paradoxical situation. Although the restrictions demanded a lot from us, we were lucky in the spring, in retrospect. The wave of infections was comparatively small. We obviously believed that with a couple of weeks of protective measures, we'd beat that thing down. Then summer came, the economy started up again, and the virus didn't seem to spread as rapidly. It seemed almost there. Now we realize that this is far from the case. This is of course incredibly frustrating.

ZEIT ONLINE: That means we are in a collective motivation hole?

Sutter: I think a lot of people are aware that we have to limit ourselves until at least April, maybe even May. And half a year is something completely different than playing lockdown for four to six weeks. That's the classic problem with patience: If the main goal is very far away, patience is all the more difficult. This is an easy-to-explain mechanism.

ZEIT ONLINE: But if we've been through it before, shouldn't we have more practice?

Sutter: The problem is that we all remember how much it bothered us the first time. The closings, the travel restrictions - those were things that were unthinkable months before. That was a big shock for me too. I was in Tyrol at the time when it suddenly said: Nobody can get out of here now. That hit me hard too, and it took me about a week or two to rearrange all work processes so that they could be satisfactorily managed from home. After all, it took almost three months until the borders with Germany opened again. None of us want to experience that again.

ZEIT ONLINE: Does the prospect that the current partial lockdown is only set for a certain time helps?

Sutter: One would indulge in the illusion of believing that everything would be fine again sometime in December and that we can go carefree into the Christmas holidays. It is possible that we will have to unlock and lock areas of the country several times until April. I still believe that people understand that. The situation is serious and if this continues, the capacities in our hospitals will be tight. Nobody wants that.