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Society and communities

What is distancing doing to our social lives and wellbeing?

Since the World Health Organization’s announcement, we have “officially” been living with the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For some, this means not going into work or even loss of employment altogether. Others may be distraught over the loss of a loved one, or the fear that something might happen to them at any minute. For everyone, complying with the advice to physically distance themselves from others and to stay at home means a drastic change to their normal ways of living. How, then, can we derive hope and strength? As a uniquely social species, we humans are drawn into close relationships, especially when things go awry. In the case of this pandemic, our close bonds with others can protect us against the negative impacts of distancing.

To find out how COVID-19 is affecting people’s social life and wellbeing, we recently launched an online survey study as an international group of researchers. In this study, led by the University of Nottingham, we want to understand the social motivators and consequences of distancing over a three-month period. The survey is available in 12 languages. We are inviting respondents from all over the world to take part via or @DistancingStudy on Twitter.

This is the first of a series of blog posts, in which you will find more information about the distancing study. Today, we will focus on the possible social influences of COVID-19 from a psychological and anthropological perspective.

Big and costly changes to daily behaviour, such as the current distancing measures for COVID-19, require more than convincing each individual – what is required is a norm-change. Norms are those conducts that are widely endorsed by a group of people. Norm change is a complex process influenced by not just our own beliefs, but also by what we think others in the society do and believe. We are more likely to switch to a new and more difficult way of living if people around us are doing it and supporting it too. To successfully create long-lasting behaviour change in individuals, it is essential for policymakers to understand the pivotal role of social influences in this process.

"Will people stick with the distancing measures in the long-term as countries plan exit strategies and new waves arise?"
Dr Bahar Tuncgenc

Another key concern from the very first days of the lockdown onwards has been around sustainability – will people stick with the distancing measures in the long-term as countries plan exit strategies and new waves arise? When faced with a threatening, distressing and uncertain situation like the current pandemic, people typically seek further social support. Yet, the distancing measures may hinder access to social support, which can exacerbate the negative effects of lockdown on wellbeing. It is crucial to know how this pandemic affects wellbeing, both from a public mental health perspective, and due to its implications on compliance with the behaviours that would slow down the spread of the virus.

Finally, we have seen great variation in how people and governments in different countries respond to the pandemic. Beyond access to essential medical and financial resources, certain widely held cultural values may explain why countries vary in their response to the pandemic. For example, we can expect higher compliance with the distancing advice in cultures that value self-sacrifice for the benefit of the community. In contrast, people may be more hesitant to change their ways of living in cultures that strongly value individual rights and freedom.

Given that social distancing is likely to continue for some time to come, the results of this research will be available to shape policy.  So while for a moment the social side of COVID-19 is a massive puzzle, where we are making educated guesses as to how people will behave, our work will help provide a more robust evidence base for the future.

After the virus

Read more from our researchers as we reflect on the challenges we face after the coronavirus crisis, as well as opportunities to rebuild a more resilient, fairer society.

Bahar Tuncgenc

Dr Bahar Tuncgenc is a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology.

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