Compliance with pandemic restrictions: the important influence of social circles

Friday 22 January 2021

National and world leaders continually appeal to ‘individual responsibility’ to halt the spread of the coronavirus. Could it be that politicians have been sharing the wrong message?

New global research has found that people follow their friends more than their own principles when it comes to compliance with pandemic restrictions.

The research, co-authored by Professor Ophelia Deroy from the University of London’s School of Advanced Study, shows that we are more likely to follow what our friends do, rather than our own principles, when it comes to complying with pandemic restrictions. This surprising finding challenges the assumptions at work in many communication campaigns and holds true across a large global data set of more than 6,500 people.

The team included researchers from the UK, France, Germany, and the US, all experts in collective behaviour. The paper, ‘Social influence matters: we follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle does’ was published this month in the British Journal of Psychology. 

Researchers asked people from more than 100 countries how much they, and their social circles, approved of and followed the Covid-19 rules currently in place in their area.

They found that the best predictor of compliance with the rules was how closely their social circle complied with the rules. This had an even stronger effect than people’s own approval of the rules. This discovery is particularly notable because it was confirmed across age groups, genders, and countries, and was independent of the severity of the pandemic or the strength of restrictions.

The research highlights a blind spot 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 with vaccination recommendations.

Practical steps could include the development and use of apps that let people know when their close friends are enrolled for the vaccine. Getting people to use social media to demonstrate to their friends that they are following the rules, rather than expressing outrage at people who aren’t following them, could be a more productive approach. 

Quotes from the authors

“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 senior author Ophelia Deroy, who is an associate researcher at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and also professor of philosophy of mind at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

“Unlike what most models seem to assume, those who follow the rules most diligently are not necessarily the most vulnerable, or personally convinced. Instead, those who adhere to lockdown measures most consistently are those who have more friends who also do the right thing.”

Dr Bahar Tunçgenç, first author on the study, from the University of Nottingham says, “When it all started in 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 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.”

“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 Martha Newson, a UKRI future leaders fellow at the University of Kent and research associate at the University of Oxford.

For further information, please contact Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8859 / Maureen.mctaggart@sas.ac.uk