People follow pandemic rules when their close circle does, new study finds

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  • The effectiveness of Covid-19 regulations is dependent on public adherence and cooperation 
  • A new study investigated the role of social influence on individuals' adherence to Covid-19 regulations in 114 countries. 
  • The researchers found that participants were more likely to comply with regulations if their social circles did so, irrespective of their own beliefs 


To curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, campaigns to promote physical distancing, frequent hand washing and the wearing of masks have been launched worldwide. The success of these campaigns is dependent on the public’s adherence to these preventative measures. 

A new study conducted by the University of Nottingham and led by a team of international researchers, reveals that individuals were more likely to follow Covid-19 regulations if their close circle complied with the rules, irrespective of their own approval of the regulations. 

The study, published in the British Journal of Psychology, collected data from 114 countries and 6 674 participants to investigate whether personal and social factors could be associated with the adherence to Covid-19 guidelines. 

The participants completed a series of surveys and indicated on slider scales to what extent they were adhering to their respective countries' Covid-19 regulations, the study explains.

Among other variables, participants were asked about their close circle size, adherence to the regulations, their approval thereof, their collective responsibility and fusion with their countries. 

Study findings 

The researchers found that the best measure of an individual’s adherence to Covid-19 regulations was the perceived adherence of their close friends, followed by their approval of the rules. 

Additionally, individuals were more likely to comply with Covid-19 regulations due to the perceived vulnerability of themselves and their loved ones to the disease. 

However, perceived adherence of fellow citizens only influenced self-adherence to Covid-19 regulations for individuals if they were closely bonded with their country. 

“Building upon the pre-Covid-19 literature on social group formation, imitation and bonding, our findings show how social influence from one’s close circle guides behavioural change during a crisis,” according to the researchers. 

The researchers also attribute greater adherence to Covid-19 regulations to people's tendency to trust, agree and co-operate more with those in their close circles. 

“Our results indicate that in the rapidly changing and threatening pandemic situation, people had an increased need to turn towards their bonded inner groups for reference – whether that be their close circle of family and friends or fellow citizens,” the researchers state. 

Policy implications 

The researchers suggest that policymakers emphasise the shared values and social influence of their close friends and family when considering how to promote adherence to pandemic rules. 

“When others within a bonded community follow new rules, everyone is more likely to start adopting them, even if they have not yet fully internalised the value of these rules,” say the researchers. 

To further promote Covid-19 regulations, the researchers state that public messages should emphasise collectivistic values (such as working for the benefit of the community) and the efficacy of collective actions. 

“For effective policies during pandemics and future crises that require a collective behavioural response, our message is as follows: 'Even when the challenge is to practise physical distancing, social closeness is the solution.'" 

Image credit: Unsplash

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