Doing the right thing

by Colin Strong
State of the Nation

How we learnt that (most) people are socially minded

When later generations look back at the behaviour of the world’s population this year, they may well be struck by just how willing we have been to comply with the lockdowns and restrictions. From mask-wearing and social distancing to minimising the number of people meeting and regular washing of hands, a wide range of measures to prevent the spread of the pandemic have had very high levels of adherence.

Despite the media’s highlighting of protests and complaints, our polling has shown that these are all measures which the population is willing to adopt. In October, the number of Britons that claimed to be following the coronavirus rules increased by 11 percentage points to 73%, compared to 62% in September.

Throughout the long history of adversity – previous pandemics, wars, floods and the like – we know that people’s adherence is contingent on a collective social norm, where people feel everyone is in it together. We have seen people volunteer in unprecedented numbers, organise local support networks, and clap NHS and frontline workers on a weekly basis. Indeed, we have found that the public have been consistently more concerned about the risk to the country as a whole than to themselves.1

The point is, people are willing to ‘do the right thing’, but what the right thing is can sometimes be unclear. Early on, Dominic Cummings’ infamous visit to Barnard Castle set a tone that it was fine to follow your own individual ‘instincts’. Indeed, when asked about arguments against following the rules, nearly half (47%) of Britons cite the lack of people in government following the rules as a convincing excuse not to follow them themselves. Arguably, other messages that could be seen as confusing include being asked to ‘eat out to help out’ and told it was our ‘national duty’ to return to our offices and go to the pub. Then, soon afterwards being advised that contagion levels are rising due to young people (who of course are more likely to consider going to the pub being their national duty) having ‘relaxed too much’.

People are willing to ‘do the right thing’, but what the right thing is can sometimes be unclear

Eat out to help out sticker in a local restaurant

Adherence levels remain high, which tells us something important

In spite of these challenges, adherence levels remain high, which tells us something important and interesting. At the outset of the pandemic there was concern that the public might suffer from ‘behavioural fatigue’, a notion that actually has no scientific basis. This is the notion that people are fragile and cannot be trusted to comply – yet the evidence for psychological weakness is very thin.

What we have seen are the faultlines in society where many people simply can’t comply with the guidelines. People may be in jobs that require them to be there in person, often working in non-physically distanced conditions, some are living in cramped multigenerational households, some may have caring responsibilities outside of the home, others cannot afford to take time off work if they start to show symptoms.

Two friends greet each other while social distancing

The point is that we are in danger of what Stephen Reicher calls ‘psychologising’ – regarding non-compliance as being about motivation or fatigue. Research on behaviour in emergencies and disasters shows that people are typically resilient: we are orderly and support each other, particularly if there is a sense of shared identity. We need to think carefully about how we enable people to enact the right behaviour rather than assuming they won’t because they are fragile or unwilling.

What we have learned this year about human behaviour is actually heartening: the resilience of our social identity and the way we are willing to act as members of a group with mutual interests, rather than unfettered individualism. As Reicher puts it: “The public are not a problem that needs to be managed and controlled, [rather] the public constitute the best resource available in a crisis.”

Colin Strong

Colin Strong

Head of Behavioural Science