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Social influence matters: We follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle does

NOMIS researcher Ophelia Deroy and her team have published their COVID-19-related study, “Social influence matters: We follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle does,” in the British Journal of Psychology.

Global research finds people comply to Covid-19 rules when they think their friends do

National and world leaders alike continually appeal to ‘individual responsibility’ to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The dominant message is that following lockdown rules is everyone’s personal duty, if citiizens want to protect themselves and others. Could it be that politicians have been sharing the wrong message?

New research led by Ophelia Deroy at the LMU shows that in fact, we are more likely to follow what our friends do, rather than our own principles when it comes to pandemic restrictions. This surprising finding challenges the assumptions at work in many campaigns and models, and holds across a large global data set of over 6500 people.

The team also includes researchers from British, French and American universities, all experts in collective behaviour. Their paper is flagged by the editors and the publisher as an important source of advice for the continued challenges ahead.

During the pandemic, governments have often overlooked the fact that networks of social circles are essential components of an individual’s life. 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 also their close social circle, approved of and followed the Covid-19 rules currently in place in their area.

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. 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.

“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. Another interesting finding from our study is that vulnerable people were more likely to follow the guidelines if they had a large social circle. This further shows how interdependent we are and how important social support can be,” says Ophelia Deroy.

The research brings new fundamental insights in a phenomenon previously known as “conditional norm following” – emphasising that new social rules often face a “chicken & egg” problem, as people follow them only if they see that others do.

The results also highlight 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.

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. Policymakers should bear in mind that even when the challenge is to practise social distancing, social closeness is the solution.

Dr Bahar Tunçgenç from the University of Nottingham and a research affiliate at the University of Oxford adds, “When the 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.”.

“Public policies are on the wrong track: We see scientists and politicians trying to boost the approval of the measures amongst their citizens, so that governments get support for their vaccination campaigns and lockdowns. But approval does not mean compliance! You may think well of the official guidelines, but eventually, what you do strongly depends on what your close friends do” Deroy continues.

Read the British Journal of Psychology publication

Related news

Ophelia Deroy’s summary: Guided by others, rather than our own principles

The Conversation: Why we’re more likely to follow COVID-19 rules when our families and friends do

The Daily Mail: Leading by example: People are more likely to follow Covid-19 restrictions like handwashing and social distancing if their friends and family do, study finds

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Chair, Philosophy of Mind and Cognitive Neuroscience
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Munich Center for Neurosciences
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