National and world leaders continually appeal to ‘individual responsibility’ to halt the spread of the coronavirus : following lockdown and hygiene rules, we are told, is everyone’s personal duty. Could it be that politicians are sharing the wrong message?
New research from the CVBE and Crowd Cognition Labs in LMU shows that in fact, we are more likely to follow our friends rather rather than our own principles when it comes to pandemic restrictions. Even when it comes to our friends, we are influenced by what WE THINK THEY DO.
This surprising finding challenges the assumptions at work in many campaigns and models, and was found to hold across a large, global data set of over 6500 people, including from UK, Iran and Germany.
The researcher team also included experts in collective behaviour from British, French, and American universities. Today (21st January 2021) sees the release of their paper, ‘Social influence matters: We follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle does’ published in the British Journal of Psychology. The paper is flagged by the editors and the publisher as an important source of advice for the continued challenges ahead.
To investigate the role these 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.
If people were following what their conscience told them was right, then personal approval should be the most closely aligned with people’s compliance with the rules. But that is not what the research shows : instead, the researchers found that the best predictor of people’s compliance to the rules was how much their close circle complied with the rules. This discovery is particularly salient because it was confirmed across age groups, genders, countries, and was independent of the severity of the pandemic and strength of restrictions.
The research 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.
“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.
“We saw that people didn’t simply follow the rules if they felt vulnerable or were personally convinced. Instead, this uncertain and threatening environment highlighted the crucial role of social influence. Most diligent followers of the guidelines were those whose friends and family also followed the rules. We also saw 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 you were willing to stick your neck out for.” says Dr Tunçgenç, also the first author on the study.
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 collectivistic values, such as working for the benefit of our loved ones and the community. Policymakers should bear in mind that even when the challenge is to practise social distancing, social closeness is the solution.