New research published in The British Journal of Psychology provides insight into some of the factors associated with compliance with COVID-19 regulations. The findings indicate that people are significantly more likely to follow such guidelines when their close friends and family members also do.
“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,” explained study author Bahar Tuncgenc, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham.
“While the West emphasized ‘each person doing the right thing,’ pandemic strategies in countries like Singapore, China and South Korea focused 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.”
For their study, the researchers gathered data from 6,674 individuals from 114 countries.
Participants were first asked to list the first names of people who they would turn to for advice or comfort. They then indicated how much they approved of and followed the COVID-19 guidelines currently in place in their area. Next, the participants estimated how much their close social circle (the people they had listed before), people in their country, and people around the world approved of and followed the COVID-19 rules.
The participants also completed assessments of vulnerability to COVID-19, collective responsibility, fusion with country, empathy, and other factors.
After controlling for age, gender, education level, time spent at home, and local lockdown measures, the researchers found that beliefs in collective efficacy and collectivism were both positively associated with adherence to COVID-19 guidelines. Those who perceived that their loved ones and themselves were more vulnerable to COVID-19 also tended to have heightened levels of adherence.
But the strongest predictor of people’s adherence to distancing was the perceived adherence of their close social circle. The behavior of one’s closest friends and loved ones had an even stronger effect than the participants’ own approval of the rules.
“Our results show that thinking that our loved ones are also following the COVID-19 guidelines is what motivates us the most to comply with the restrictions. So, if you want to encourage those around you to follow lockdown restrictions or take the vaccine, the best thing you can do is to show, not tell. In other words, people need to see that you’re ‘doing what you preach,'” Tuncgenc told PsyPost.
“We also found that people who are vulnerable to the disease were more likely to follow the guidelines if they had a larger social circle. It’s almost as if they weren’t doing it only to protect themselves, but also because they knew others cared about them. So, if you know a vulnerable friend or family member, show them that you care about them and make sure you are in their close circle by actively staying in touch.”
Though the researchers were able to recruit a large and culturally-diverse sample, the participants were more educated and younger than average. “We would have loved to reach an even wider range of participants; more women than men and more educated people took part in our study. This is typical in online studies, but still, something we’d like to do better at in the future,” Tuncgenc said.
“An interesting question, which we are currently working on, is what affects people’s approval of the rules. As scientists, we tend to think that people’s trust in science plays a major role in their thoughts and actions, but is that so in the case of the pandemic? You will hear more on that from us in the coming months!”
The new findings also have some important policy implications.
“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,” said co-author Ophelia Deroy in a news release. “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.”
“Policymakers have long overlooked the insights that social science can bring,” Tuncgenc added. “Psychology is not ‘common sense’ – we are making evidence-based advice, rather than sharing thoughts based on personal experiences. Public messaging and vaccine campaigns have a lot to learn from scientists studying human behavior. Please consult and listen to us.”
The study, “Social influence matters: We follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle does“, Bahar Tuncgenc, Marwa El Zein, Justin Sulik, Martha Newson, Yi Zhao, Guillaume Dezecache, and Ophelia Deroy.