How to make people follow Covid-19 restrictions without appealing to fear

  • Complying with Covid-19 regulations should not be driven by fear
  • Health education and preventative measures are the most effective ways of getting people to comply
  • Experts are advising policymakers not to use fear as a tactic as the next wave of infections looms

A new study found that during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, compliance with Covid-19 related regulations was due to scientific health advice and not driven by fear. 

The research published in the British Journal of Health Psychology assessed the extent to which fear or feeling threatened interacts with self-efficacy (ability to cope based on one's personal skills and circumstances), interpersonal confidence, and institutional trust in predicting protective behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Assessing behaviours

The researchers surveyed 26 508 people from eight countries, including France, Italy, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America.

The experts assessed two types of protective behaviour: avoidant and preventive. Avoidant behaviours include physical distancing, such as avoiding crowds or hugging and kissing people outside one's immediate family. Preventive behaviours include hygienic precautions such as hand-washing or coughing into one's elbow.

To measure self-efficacy, participants were asked about their knowledge of how specific measures may protect them against Covid-19 and if they felt capable of following protective advice.

To examine interpersonal and institutional trust, respondents were asked if they thought that most people could be trusted. They were also asked how much confidence they had in their government's handling of the pandemic on a scale of 0 to 10. 

Fear is not the way to go

The findings of the study showed extremely high levels of avoidant behaviour and medium to high levels of preventive behaviour in all of the eight countries. The researchers found strong evidence that individual-level differences in self-efficacy decreased the importance of threat or fear as a predictor of protective behaviour and also found some evidence that trust similarly moderated the association between threat and protective behaviour. 

Furthermore, the findings show that the effects of fear were minor among people who feel efficacious, creating a path to compliance without fear.

"Our study shows that in the first stage of the pandemic, a sense of urgency emerged and made people put aside individual considerations and political differences. This sense caused people across the world to say: 'Tell us what to do, and we will do it,'" says study co-author Professor Michael Bang Petersen in a press statement.

Based on the evidence from this large study, experts advise governments not to use fear as a tool of getting citizens to comply, but rather encourage literacy on avoidant and preventive behaviours.

"The study provides a unique insight into behaviour during the first wave of an unprecedented crisis, which we can utilise both in the present and in the long term. Often, decision-makers are worried that the population will panic. But our data shows that authorities do not need to fear this. Instead, they should tell people as clearly as possible about the real challenges and how people should act," Petersen adds.

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