New research has shown that people are more likely to follow Covid-19 restrictions based on what their friends do, rather than their own principles.
Research led by the University of Nottingham carried out in partnership with experts in collective behaviour from British, French, German and American universities shows how social influence affects people’s adherance to government restrictions. The researchers found that the best predictor of people’s compliance to the rules was how much their close circle complied with the rules, which had an even stronger effect than people’s own approval of the rules.
The research published in British Journal of Psychology highlights a blindspot in policy responses to the pandemic. It also suggests that including experts in human and social behaviour is crucial when planning the next stages of the pandemic response, such as how to ensure that people comply with extended lockdowns or vaccination recommendations.
The lead researcher, Dr Bahar Tunçgenç from the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology and a research affiliate at the University of Oxford said: “When coronavirus first hit the UK in March, I was struck by how differently the leaders in Europe and Asia were responding to the pandemic. While the West emphasised ‘each person doing the right thing’, pandemic strategies in countries like Singapore, China and South Korea focussed on moving the collective together as a single unit. To understand what would work most effectively for bringing people on board in this moment of crisis, we set out to conduct a global study.”
To investigate the role that social networks might play in preventing the spread of Covid-19, the researchers asked people from over 100 countries how much they, and their close social circle, approved of and followed the Covid-19 rules currently in place in their area.
The researchers found that people didn’t simply follow the rules if they felt vulnerable or were personally convinced. Most diligent followers of the guidelines were those whose friends and family also followed the rules. Close circle’s compliance had an even stronger effect than people’s own approval of the rules. This discovery applied to all age groups, genders, countries, and was independent of the severity of the pandemic and strength of restrictions.The study also revealed that people who were particularly bonded to their country were more likely to stick to lockdown rules — the country was like family in this way, someone for whom one is willing to stick their neck out.
“Public policies are on the wrong track: We see scientists and politicians trying to boost the public’s approval of the measures, so that vaccination campaigns and lockdowns get the support of the citizens, but approval does not mean compliance! You may make up your own mind about the measures, or listen to experts, but eventually, what you do depends on what your close friends do” says Ophelia Deroy, who is a professor of philosophy of mind and neuroscience at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.
Dr Tuncgenc concludes: “There is much that human behaviour research can offer to implement effective policies for the Covid-19 challenges we will continue to face in the future. Practical steps could include social apps, similar to social-based excercise apps, which tell people whether their close friends are enrolled for the vaccine. Using social media to demonstrate to your friends that you are following the rules, rather than expressing outrage at people who aren’t following them could also be a more impactful approach. At national and local levels, public messages by trusted figures can emphasise collective values, such as working for the benefit of our loved ones and the community. Our message to policymakers is that even when the challenge is to practise social distancing, social closeness is the solution!”
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