Why collective behaviour will get us through the Covid-19 pandemic

Sussex psychologist advises government on how to encourage behaviour change in crises.

In times of emergency, a major determinant of the outcome is how people respond.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, encouraging people to alter their behaviour - through social distancing, washing hands and staying at home – was recognised as a vital factor in limiting the spread of disease.

But what was the driving force that made the majority of us comply? Was it the fear of prosecution, or our collective responsibility towards one another?

John Drury, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Sussex, has been among a group of independent social behaviour experts advising the government on how to help people adhere to these interventions.

Drury, who has spent twenty years studying how crowds respond in emergencies, was invited to join the Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B), a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), when the government was seeking experts to give guidance on managing the virus outbreak.

“Some have argued that psychology should not have a place in informing decision-making and policy in relation to Covid-19,” says Drury, who has served on similar advisory groups since 2010. “The real question is not whether psychology should be used in guiding policy in response to emergencies, but which psychology, because it already is, whether or not academic psychologists are part of that.”

Particularly dangerous are some elements of ‘folk psychology’, which are based on assumptions rather that evidence on how people behave in emergencies, he says.

Examples, he says, include the operational assumption made by responders in chemical incidents that the public will necessarily panic and be disorderly; and the official guidance that again assumes a panicking or passive public incapable of taking the responsibility needed when crisis strikes.

“These assumptions drive emergency management strategies known to be ineffective and even counterproductive - such as use of coercion and withholding information from the public,” says Drury.

“In the case of Covid-19, we have just seen the damaging consequences of relying on folk-psychological assumptions. The ‘common sense’ notion of supposed public ‘fatigue’ was one reason used to justify delay in introducing the physical distancing measures necessary to slow the spread of the virus.

“Therefore, if psychologists don’t intervene by presenting the existing research evidence, policymakers and non-psychology scientific advisors will draw upon their folk psychology of human behaviour to inform their judgements and guide decisions at the highest level.”

Psychologists have long shown that people’s behaviour is a key factor in health outcomes, and that it can be changed by giving people appropriate information on the likely consequences of particular actions.

Drury says: “In Covid-19, the key factors to preventing spread have mostly been behavioural – hand-washing, two-metre physical distancing, and self-isolation.

“Psychologists can help by providing policymakers with advice on the key variables or conditions that will enhance adherence to preventative behaviours. For example, we know that people are more likely to adhere to these behaviours to reduce risk if it is for their family, for their community, for the NHS, rather than just for themselves personally.”

Drury’s research has repeatedly shown that collective behaviour – based on a belief that ‘we’re all in this together’ – rather than individualism, is the more common response to disasters and crises.

During the 9/11 attacks, those escaping the World Trade Center spontaneously coordinated their movements by walking at the same speed so that everyone could evacuate down all the flights of stairs more efficiently. And when people were trapped in the bombed London underground trains on 7 July 2005, they came together to remove train doors.

“We know that people don’t simply act as individuals,” he says. “They are also willing to make great sacrifices for collective causes – even at personal danger to themselves. Think of wars, revolutions, protests – or, again, many emergencies and disasters where people sometimes take risks to help strangers.”

In previous advisory groups, Drury has given guidance on the wording of messaging (for example explaining why assumptions and language around ‘panic’ are problematic). Recently, he helped inform the National Risk Assessment to take account of the evidence that solidarity is common and irrational anxiety or panic is less common in emergencies and disasters. The NRA informs the policies and practices of Local Resilience Forums around the country.

“As a psychologist, when I am asked how people behave in emergencies and disasters, there is sometimes the expectation that there is a generic behaviour reflecting a fixed human nature,” he says.

“But the example of Covid-19 in particular shows us that a range of behaviours is possible. Research in psychology has helped us develop the theoretical models that explain the conditions under which people will behave one way rather than another in emergencies and other events.”

One of the striking features of coverage of the public response to the Covid-19 pandemic is the number of stories in the news and social media about the very best and apparently the worst of human behaviour, he points out.

“Some people have been accused of acting selfishly by ignoring social distancing rules. (Though the evidence showed that the vast majority were adhering and the main reason for non-adherence was structural rather than psychological). But even with the media’s tendency to overstate and sensationalize the negative, the less dramatic stories of informal support and solidarity groups in local communities were frequent.

“There are now more than 3000 Covid-19 community mutual aid groups around the country that have been set up so that people self-isolating could receive their shopping and other help. This is what I would expect based on my previous work on public responses in emergencies.”

The pandemic is also revealing new avenues of research interest to him. “Many people have reported changing norms to more mundane friendliness, neighbourliness – smiling at strangers, stopping to say hello, and so on. How these new norms developed, their basis in ‘shared fate’, and the question of how long they will endure are fascinating ones to address.”