All over the world, personal movement has been restricted to various degrees in an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But some people seem to having trouble staying away from others. Social psychology may help us understand why some of us are not listening.

Nobody was prepared for the new decade to kick off with a worldwide pandemic. Governments have approached the problem differently. Many countries have imposed lockdowns or stay-at-home orders to various degrees, in some cases enforced by police. Others – like Sweden – focused not on restrictions, but on recommendations such as social distancing, trusting the public to work together to flatten the curve.

Although the dangers of the virus and the ease by which it spreads is, at this point, common knowledge, we’ve seen plenty of examples where people fail to keep a safe distance. This is not just in line at the supermarket, but meeting up with friends and family, going to parties – or protesting in large groups. So why is that? Wiley Wakeman and Mark Conley, both Assistant Professors at the Stockholm School of Economics, say social psychology may offer some answers.

Pluralistic ignorance

“It may be that everyone personally believes that individuals should practice social distancing – staying two meters from others in public spaces – but because they don’t see others engaging in social distancing, they believe that others must simply not feel the same way”, Wiley Wakeman explains. “In other words, we may all agree that social distancing is the right thing to do, but because no one is seen practicing it, we mistakenly believe that others do not agree with us, and are reluctant to speak up.”

Dale Miller and Cathy McFarland outlined this social phenomena, calling it “pluralistic ignorance”.

“What they argue is that individuals may hold common beliefs, rejecting the way things are commonly done in public, however because they feel embarrassed to bring up their beliefs, especially when they feel others might not share their views, they do not change their behavior. When it comes to the Swedes, it’s probably not a stretch to say that they avoid interpersonal conflict and embarrassing situations, especially in public, so it may not be that we don’t agree that social distancing is important, but we can’t effectively coordinate our opinions in ways that adjust behavior,” says Wakeman.

The bystander effect

In a similar vein, the difficulty of doing the right thing is often compounded by others’ inaction in public. The “bystander effect” occurs when individuals witness a transgression or tragedy but do not act on their best instincts precisely because others are around.

Mark Conley explains the phenomenon: “The bystander effect draws its power specifically due to fact that others are simultaneously witnessing the same phenomenon. If faced with the situation alone, individuals would clearly act. But because others are watching and they could presumedly also help, this fact licenses individuals to not do the right thing. Instead, given the inaction of other bystanders, individuals blame others for their bad behavior or make assumptions that others must be addressing the situation in ways they don’t see, a motivated fiction that helps them forget the fact that they themselves have yet to do anything and that there might be significant costs behind their inaction.”

Motivated exceptionalism

While pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect assume that we objectively and accurately understand the threat that COVID-19 represents, this may not be a safe assumption. The quick onset and wide-ranging effects of COVID-19 is alarming. Ultimately, this pandemic is threatening to almost everyone, and our behavior and judgement in times of threat is markedly different than others.

While it is known that we harbor positive illusions about our own abilities, specific threats to our own existence heighten this bias. Faced with significant threats our objective understanding of data may not exist. In fact, researchers such as Shelley Taylor argue that harboring positive illusions may be particularly helpful in fostering out mental health, providing a psychological harbor from the tumultuous events that threaten to encompass us.

“It turns out that our psychological immune system may disguise the risks associated with contracting or spreading COVID-19, suggesting that we have some sort of super immunity or resistance to the disease that helps us adjust to this specific threat,” says Wiley Wakeman. “This self-protective bias has been documented in cancer patents who believe that they can control their own cancer or are more likley to survive than the diagnosis suggests, despite the statistical improbability of this fact. These sort of positive illusions may helpful in the short run adjustment to such a threatening environment, protect our egos from the direct impact of the threatening truth of this pandemic; however, these illusions may also contribute to the bad behavior linked to the spread of COVID-19.”

How we can improve

Given our psychological biases, what can – and should – we do? Conley and Wakeman outline three solutions:

Recognize our biases. If we know how and when our behaviors are likely to differ from socially optimal outcomes, we can take steps to change them. This involves understanding these biases, understanding when they are likely to arise, and taking steps to document our behavior to make us objectively aware of how our behavior differs from what we would optimally do given the chance.

Show courage. Showing courage is difficult. However, it will be necessary if you are to take steps to adjust your behavior, even when others are not doing the same. Maybe this means shopping when others are not there, moving when others get too close, or wearing facemasks when others are not doing this. You cannot control what other will do, but taking steps on your own does help alter the effect you have, and such behaviors may align with the views of others that signals to them your privately held opinions and coordinates actions.

Lean on civil society: It may be that governmental bodies do not need to dictate what individuals have to do, but remind them what they should be doing. Instutional responses, from local municipalities to stores and public transport, can all help in nudging us towards good behavior. This may mean limiting access or putting up visual reminders to keep a distance. For instance, local councils in Ireland spray painted a two meter reminder on park paths making it easier for walkers to judge a safe distance. As our minds are burdened by all the worries that this pandemic has brought, it may be that we simply need a little help remembering what is the best course of action during these trying times.


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