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Social Circles Determine How Well People Follow COVID-19 Guidelines, Study Finds

Two neighbors meeting up to talk with masks on.

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent study found that people follow COVID-19 guidelines the most when members of their close social circle do as well.
  • In times of stress, like a pandemic, people look to their trusted close circle for information and guidance.
  • Following COVID-19 guidelines, like wearing your mask, can help encourage those close to you to do the same.

It turns out if you're following COVID-19 safety precautions, your friends and family probably are too. A recent study found that people follow pandemic guidelines the most when members of their close social circle do as well.

Researchers noticed differences in COVID-19 public health messaging around the world and decided to test how those messages impacted adherence to COVID-related safety protocols.

“While the West emphasized ‘each person doing the right thing,’ pandemic strategies in countries like Singapore, China, and South Korea focused on moving the collective together as a single unit,” lead study author Bahar Tuncgenc, PhD, MSc, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham in England, tells Verywell. “To understand what would work most effectively for bringing people on board in this moment of crisis, we set out to conduct a global study.”

Researchers evaluated how social influence impacted personal COVID‐19 guideline adherence at different closeness scales. For the study, they asked people from over 100 countries how much they, and their close social circle, approved of and followed the general COVID-19 rules in place in their area, reminding them that general advice involves social distancing.

The findings support the researchers' hypothesis that individuals structure their lives by developing strategies and expectations based on those efforts to meet their most basic needs, which include belonging to intimate groups. The study was published on January 21 in the British Journal of Psychology.

What This Means For You

Modeling proper health protocols and appealing to someone's sense of the greater good could be a way to influence your friends and family who have not been complying with COVID-19 safety precautions. The best course of action is following the rules yourself and leading by example.

The Influence of Social Circles

The researchers found that those who followed the COVID-19 guidelines most closely were those whose friends and family also strictly followed the rules. The compliance of a close social circle had a stronger impact on an individual's compliance than their own personal approval of the rules.

These findings are applicable to all age groups, genders, and countries. Researchers found that it was even independent of the severity of the pandemic and the strength of the COVID-19 restrictions in participants' areas.

Based on a growing body of COVID-19 articles on social group formation, imitation, and bonding, the researchers understood that social influence from one’s close circle guides behavioral change during a crisis.

Scientists have long realized the importance of personal interactions. “Humans are fundamentally social,” Syon Bhanot, PhD, a behavioral and public economist and an assistant professor of economics at Swarthmore College in Pennslyvania, tells Verywell. “I think it’s fair to say that a great deal of human advancement as a species is down to the fact that we evolved and thrived because of communication, social interaction, and cooperation.”

Why Appealing to the Greater Good Works

No one wants to be seen as an outlier on health and safety. However, when a new directive is released, it can be challenging for individuals to oblige because not everybody will be aware of the change or may not have the resources to implement it.

Reasons community members might not follow health and safety policies can include:

  • Lack of awareness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Poor communication

This study builds on previous research showing how empathy and thinking about the collective good can help people practice social distancing.

The researchers believe their study reveals how appealing to one's sense of collective good can be a more powerful tool than addressing an individual’s susceptibility to COVID-19. “We humans are a very social species,” Tuncgenc says. “This means that our decisions and behaviors are strongly guided by others. Especially when faced with a threatening or uncertain situation like the pandemic, we look out to the people we love and trust as a reliable source of information.”
 
Tuncgenc recommends public health messages that promote community values to help boost compliance with pandemic-related measures. “Public health messaging should move from emphasizing the threat of the disease to showcasing 'good behavior' by loved and trusted others,” Tuncgenc says. “This can include using social media in a constructive case to show our friends, for example, that we have taken the vaccine. At a larger scale, trusted figures within neighborhoods or in the country can be more at the forefront of public health messages.”

Bhanot agrees public health messaging should shift away from focusing on the individual. “Social influence can be fuel for positive behavior change here; you just need to get the snowball rolling down the hill to kick things off,” he says. “We need health messaging that really emphasizes what the socially acceptable behavior is, and highlights that behavior in clear ways. And, importantly, that messaging needs to send the signal that ‘other people expect you to do this.’"

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Tunçgenç B, El Zein M, Sulik J, et al. Social influence matters: We follow pandemic guidelines most when our close circle doesBr J Psychol. Published online January 20, 2021 doi:10.1111/bjop.12491

  2. Elcheroth G, Drury J. Collective resilience in times of crisis: Lessons from the literature for socially effective responses to the pandemicBr J Soc Psychol. 2020;59(3):703-713.