Countries around the world have had to impose strict restrictions on people’s normal daily lives and impose emergency measures to contain coronavirus. Citizens have been challenged by these measures, often resorting to buying extra food and provisions and finding it difficult to comply with social isolation.
These unprecedented times face governments with considerable challenges and some, such as the UK, are drawing on insights from behavioural science to seek appropriate engagement strategies to bring people together.
Arguably, we can sometimes be led to conclude that we are all acting out of self-interest, even in times of emergency and crisis. We might even blame certain social groups with specific behaviours. For example, ‘hoarders’ empting shelves in our food markets even though recent evidence from Kantar suggests that only 3% actually qualify as bona fide hoarders . So is this true? Common sense would suggest that in times of crisis people will help each other; even if they do not belong to the same social groups. Within behavioural science evidence has been gathered to show this and to argue that global initiatives need to draw on harnessing the belief that we are ‘all in this together’.
No one can forget the tragedy of past events in recent memory that show how humans care for each other in times of crisis. For example, 9/11 was a seminal point in global history. Studies conducted about the collective behaviour of evacuation of the World Trade Centre  showed that social support and coordination were much more common in emergency situations. For instance, Connell (2001) stated ‘helping (including carrying others jackets or briefcases, offering bottles of water) was most common…between strangers’. Many persons affected by the tragedy reported a greater sense of closeness and togetherness. This identity of having a ‘common fate’ erodes common ‘in group’ and ‘out group’ boundaries of social inclusion and exclusion. The London 7/7 bombings of 2005 is a further example . Interviews with survivors gave extraordinary accounts of people providing reassurance, support and accounts of being influenced by how others were helping. Lastly, a quantitative study of adults affected by the Chilean earthquake found a strong social identity in terms of the belief that people would come to help and give support .
In a recent letter to ‘The Psychologist’ by Dr. Stephen Reicher and Dr. John Drury argued that we should be focusing how we can harness the power of the collective, the ‘we can get through this’ rather than the ‘I will get through this’ . Appealing to individuals on a personal level is not sufficient, particularly if the person is not at risk – why should they change their behaviour if they are less likely to get it? They’re not, so we need to look at we vs me. Similar arguments have been presented in understanding communal efforts to encourage self-imposed restrictions in public health policy, that we are more likely to cooperate if we feel we are part of a shared effort, and also that those leading these measures are part of our ‘community of circumstance’ .
There are a number of important take outs we can learn from social psychology in terms of framing initiatives to encourage compliance to combat COVID-19. For example:
- People are compelled to comply if they feel they are part of a shared communal effort, if they feel their leaders are part of this circumstance and acting legitimately for them
- We should understand the needs of different social groups and communities and address their needs. They will come together if they feel ‘people like them are doing the same’; the principle of social proof. For example, young groups need to see their own social groups being affected and influencing social change
- Social proof can be leveraged in comms to emphasise that ‘most people are doing the right thing’ as suggested by Dan Berry, Director of Behavioural Science at Hill + Knowlton Strategies .
- This study also found that messaging around handwashing to help other people (e.g. older, vulnerable) is more effective than framing the message to benefit themselves
- Conveying simple messages to convey the impact on others without suggesting specific social groups can provide powerful messages to encourage compliance. Recently, BBC correspondent Fergus Walsh used an excellent algorithm to show a negatively framed algorithm to convey the importance of avoiding social contact. A striking image.
- We need to provide a greater collective awareness of the necessity to face the COVID-19 together – even if you are not in an at-risk population. A collective response, not personal response
Once the coronavirus outbreak is under control, behavioural science should critically evaluate and learn from what comms and messaging was – or wasn’t – effective and why. For example, were we wise to suggest that the young would not suffer as much as the old? That most of us would only experience mild symptoms? That panic buying was the result of hoarders and not the responsibility of all of us?
In these unprecedented times, our collective spirit can help promote keeping everyone safe – and learnings from social psychology has a key role in this.
 Connell, R. (2001). Collective Behavior in the September 11, 2001 Evacuation of the World Trade Center. University of Delaware, Disaster Research Center. Preliminary paper #313 (link)
 Drury, J., Cocking, C. & Reicher, S. (2009). The nature of collective resilience: Survivor reactions to the 2005 London bombings. International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters, 27: 66–95 (link)
 Drury, J., Brown, R., González, R. & Miranda, D. (2016). Emergent social identity and observing social support predict social support provided by survivors in a disaster: Solidarity in the 2010 Chile earthquake. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46: 209–223 (link)
My thanks to the excellent work and insights from Dr John Drury and Dr Kalifah Alfadhi. Their work and the work of others in this field can be found in
Social Scaffolding: Applying the Lessons of Contemporary Social Science to Health and Healthcare (2019) Edited by Richard Williams (University of South Wales) Royal College of Psychiatry/Cambridge University Press
Additionally, thanks to the rest of the Cello Health Behavioural Science team for their input on this post.