A new study finds that people in 114 countries are more likely to follow social distancing guidelines based on what their friends and family do, rather than their own opinions about the guidelines.
The study appeared on January 20 in the British Journal of Psychology. It found that people are most likely to follow social distancing guidelines if they believe that their close social circle is also following them. This “social influence” mattered even more than whether people thought that distancing was the right thing to do.
Measuring social distancing compliance around the world
The study involved the responses of 6,674 people in 114 countries.
The researchers asked the participants how much they and their close friends and family approved of, and followed, the pandemic-related social distancing guidelines that were currently in effect in their region.
The results revealed that people didn’t simply follow the rules because they personally approve of them. Instead, the most significant factor was the compliance level of a given participant’s close social circle.
This finding held for all age groups, genders, and countries. It was also independent of the severity of the pandemic in a given region, or the severity of the restrictions.
Country as family
The study also found that people who felt strong ties with their own country were more likely to comply. In that respect, “country” functioned as a kind of proxy for family.
These results suggest that if governments want people to change their social behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic, they should stress “shared values.” That could mean, for example, taking advantage of the social influence wielded by people’s friends and family.
How to increase social distancing compliance
The study also suggested that efforts to improve people’s adherence to social distancing guidelines should include social apps that inform people about their friends’ behavior. For example, the app could show which of your friends and family members have already been tested or vaccinated.
Likewise, posting on social media to show friends and family that you are following the guidelines is likely to have a greater effect than merely berating people who are not following the guidelines, the study suggests.
Furthermore, public statements made by well-known and trusted figures could emphasize “collectivistic values,” the study said. An example of such a value is working for the benefit of loved ones and the community.
For effective policies that require a collective behavioral response, the researchers conclude, “even when the challenge is to practice social distancing, social closeness is the solution.”
Study: “Social influence matters: We follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle does“
Authors: Bahar Tunçgenç, Marwa El Zein, Justin Sulik, Martha Newson, Yi Zhao, Guillaume Dezecache, and Ophelia Dero
Published in: British Journal of Psychology
Publication date: January 20, 2021
Photo: by Tumisu via Pixabay