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Adherence to physical distancing measures depends on social closeness

Tristan Manalac
25 Jan 2021

People are more likely to follow social distancing measures for the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic when they thought that their friends and family did the same, too, according to a new study.

“Beyond convincing individuals about the threat of the disease or the necessity of adherence to the new rules, the influences of close circles should be given consideration,” the researchers said. “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 practice social distancing, social closeness is the solution.”

An online survey was administered to a global sample of 6,674 people from 114 countries. Participants could opt out of questions that did not apply to them, and the survey was available in several different languages. A total of 1,199 participants noted that they had no close circle, defined as someone they contacted in the past week and would turn to for advice or comfort. Among those who did have a close circle, the reported median size was 4 people. [Br J Psychol 2021;doi:10.1111/bjop.12491]

Bayesian linear regression showed that self-adherence to physical distancing orders was most strongly predicted by the similar adherence of a person’s close circle (β, 0.38, 95 percent credible interval [CI], 0.33–0.44). Self-approval of the distancing measures was a close second (β, 0.31, 95 percent CI, 0.25–0.38).

In addition, self-adherence was higher in people who thought that they (β, 0.12, 95 percent CI, 0.09–0.14) or their close circle (β, 0.10, 95 percent CI, 0.08–0.13) were particularly vulnerable to contracting COVID-19. Social connectivity also seemed to affect this, such that those who had larger close circles felt they were more vulnerable to the infection.

The researchers then constructed a subsequent exploratory model synthesizing all potential contributors to self-adherence, combining the adherence, approval, and vulnerability variables, with other determinants, such as collectivism, efficacy, and empathy.

They found that adherence of the close circle of contacts was the strongest predictor for self-adherence (β, 0.38, 95 percent CI, 0.33–0.44), followed by self-approval of the measures (β, 0.27, 95 percent CI, 0.21–0.33).

Collective efficacy, or the belief that the individual choices to adhere to distancing orders are having a positive impact, came in third (β, 0.12, 95 percent CI, 0.07–0.17). Perceived vulnerability of the self and close circle also mattered but were weaker in impact.

“To control the spread of COVID-19, public adherence to the rules is critical. Campaigns promoting social distancing and other measures have aimed to persuade individuals that the threat is serious and that adherence to these measures will protect them from the disease,” the researchers said. The present findings, however, questioned the effectivity of this messaging.

“[A]n effective strategy could be to simply directly ask people to encourage their loved ones and communities to adhere to the measures,” they continued, adding that fostering a strong sense of community at a large-scale is also essential. “[T]o promote adherence to pandemic-related measures, public messages should emphasize collectivistic values and the efficacy of the collective actions.”

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Most Read Articles
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