Sun. Dec 6th, 2020

People more likely to follow Covid-19 restrictions if their friends do

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People are less likely to follow Covid-19 safety protocols if other members of their social group are breaking the rules, study finds

  • University of Edinburgh researchers conducted a social experiment 
  • Found people will follow the lead of others if seen as the same social group 
  • But if considered to be an outsider they will not inspire people to follow them 
  • Researchers say this knowledge could inspire politicians and health officials to increase adherence to Covid-19 protocols  

People are more likely to imitate and follow the behaviour of others if they consider themselves to be part of the same group, a study has found. 

The findings suggest that health officials and politicians should portray a message of unity and collective struggle to ensure the public will follow Covid-19 restrictions. 

A social experiment conducted by experts at the University of St Andrews found people will subconsciously imitate the behaviour of others only if they perceive themselves to be of the same group. 

However, if a person is considered to be part of a different faction, they will not inspire others to mimic their advice or actions.

The findings could help ‘maximise public compliance with safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic’, the researchers believe. 

Professor Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews led the research and is also a government advisor in the SAGE sub-group dedicated to ensuring the following of public health measures.  

‘The fact that people are more likely to imitate others who they regard as ‘in-group’ is critical for maximising public compliance with safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic,’ he says.

‘If the public see those who are providing them with guidance as “we” instead of “they”, adherence to public health measures will be much higher.’ 

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The findings of the study could help ‘maximise public compliance with safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic’ for politicians and health officials. Pictured, Matt Hancock wears a mask on a visit to a hospital

There have been several instance of mixed messages from the Government and health officials during the pandemic causing the public to lose trust in their leaders and stop following some coronavirus protocols 

Over the course of the pandemic there have been several examples of those in charge not following the guidance they have implemented.

As a result, the public mood has shifted to one of disquiet, cultivating a feeling that those in power are not subject to the same rules and can flaunt the restrictions without reproach, while members of the public are being slapped with heavy fines. 

For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been spotted not wearing a mask on several occasions; ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson flaunted lockdown, which he advised, for a tryst with his lover; advisor to Boris Johnson Dominic Cummings drove from London to Durham while experiencing Covid-19 symptoms; Scotland’s chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood resigned after ignoring her own advice on social distancing by visiting her second home; and SNP Margaret Ferrier made a 400-mile train journey from Rutherglen in Lanarkshire to London to attend parliament after taking a Covid test and suffering mild symptoms. 

The findings of the study challenge the long-held belief that certain behaviours automatically and inevitably spread through a group via imitation and conformity, in a process known as social contagion.  

Often, this imitation phenomenon occurs passively, without conscious effort. 

But study authors Dr Fergus Neville and Professor Reicher, both from the University of St Andrews, found that social contagion is not a guaranteed process. It is dependent on who is setting the example to be followed. 

If we consider ourselves part of the same social group as that person, we will adhere to the unwritten social contract. 

However, if the ‘leader’ is perceived as being part of a different group or one we don’t relate to, then we will forge our own path.   

Dominic Cummings’ controversial 260mile trip to Durham at the height of lockdown caused irreparable damage to the public’s trust in Government, research has now confirmed.

Experts said the actions of the Prime Minister’s senior adviser reduced compliance to social distancing rules in England and undermined efforts to control the coronavirus. 

Boris Johnson’s chief aide sparked fury when he drove his family from London to visit his parents in County Durham in late May while he was sick with Covid-19. 

The scandal also included Mr Cummings driving 30 miles to the popular tourist spot Barnard Castle while in the north east to test his eye sight, risking passing the infection to others.

The messaging coming out of Number 10 at the time was not to leave home unless it was absolutely essential. 

Now research published in the prestigious journal the Lancet shows the scandal, which emerged on May 22, led to a sharp drop in public trust in the Government’s handling of the pandemic. 

University College London researchers, who carried out the study, said it illustrates ‘the negative and lasting consequences political decisions have on public trust’.  

The researchers discovered this nuance by running a large social science experiment at London’s Science Museum. 

More than 1,000 people took part in an experiment and they were split into two groups: red and blue. 

The groups were determined by a rigged personality test, leading participants categorised as red to believe they shared similar traits to their fellow red members. The same also applied for those in the blue group.  

Each person virtually controlled a dot of their designated colour and everyone’s dot was shown on a shared screen. 

As well as being able to see the dots of other people, a host of computer-controlled dots were also thrown into the mix. 

Researchers wanted to see if people followed and copied the movement of other dots during a series of trials and challenges. 

They found people would only imitate and follow other dots of the same colour.  

Dr Neville, who is a lecturer in the university’s School of Management, said: ‘The results from this study help to explain the variability in social imitation during emergency evacuations, such that people are more likely to be influenced by those who they see as fellow group members.’ 

In addition, the team found that the test subjects did not copy others if the task was irrelevant to their group membership.

The researchers said the findings could have ‘important implications for designing behavioural interventions and could be significant in understanding human compliance in relation to Covid-19 restrictions’. 

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