‘We’re all in this together’: Why our friends and family were the most powerful driver in our pandemic behaviour
It was the middle of March 2020 when I first began to think about a study into pandemic behaviour.
We could see what was going on in places like China, with people being quarantined in their own homes, and while it seemed very distant to us – both geographically and in terms of our concept of liberty - it became increasingly obvious that this may end up being our reality, too.
One of the most interesting questions in science for me is how humans form connections and how this is reflected in their movements. This has been the topic of all my prior research. That’s why, I was fascinated by the idea of looking at our behaviours and social connections during the pandemic. All of a sudden, we were looking at a future in which we don’t see our loved ones face to face and don’t share the kinds of subtle information we do during a physical interaction. How were we going to deal with this very unnatural way of interaction? How was it going to affect our wellbeing?
Having being born and grown up in Turkey myself, I was also interested in how different countries would deal with this situation. Culturally, places like the UK or continental Europe are very different to some Eastern cultures where the boundaries between collective identities and personal space are more permeable. This has implications for how individual freedoms are viewed differently and how much people tend to follow new rules implemented by authorities. We wanted to run a study in which we look at the impact of social distancing, what motivated people to adhere to the rules and its impact on their social interactions and mood.
"All of a sudden we were looking at a future in which we don’t see our loved ones face to face... How were we going to deal with that? How was it going to affect our wellbeing?"
To start investigating these questions, within a month I’d gathered a diverse group of fellow researchers from different disciplines and we put together the study. We needed to act fast for two reasons – firstly, we wanted our findings to contribute to policy; secondly, as human behaviour scientists, we wanted to capture how people were going to adjust to this new situation at its early stages.
We set up an online survey which ran from April to August 2020 and was completed by over 6,500 participants from 110 countries including Australia, Bangladesh, France, Germany, India, Iran, Italy, Turkey, the UK and the USA.
The response was fantastic! We exceeded our target very quickly and I received so many emails from people about it. As a scientist, you don’t usually get direct feedback on your study, but during this study, I received lots of email from people saying how much the questions related to their feelings and how glad they are that this study is being done.
Our first paper from this study was published in the British Journal of Psychology and is in the top 5% of most-viewed articles on the Altmetric database, which is extremely humbling. We discovered that people were more influenced by what they thought their friends and family were doing than by their own personal feelings about the rules.
Our findings went against the individualist assumptions of many governments and public health campaigns: people who followed guidelines the most were not those who found the rules more justified, or those who were more vulnerable to the disease. The most diligent rule followers were, consistently, those whose friends and families were following the rules. We also found that those who had a strong sense of loyalty to their country were more likely to stick to the rules.
This study showed that huge changes to daily behaviour, such as social distancing, require more than convincing each individual – what is required is a norm-change. Norms are behaviours that are widely endorsed by a group of people. 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.
A lot of the initial communication from the UK government focused on telling people what to do - “Stay home, save lives” - but our research suggests that communication which emphasises empathy and togetherness works better than that which emphasises threat and personal vulnerabilities. Particularly when the behaviour change needs to be sustained over a long period of time, the ‘we're all in this together’ mindset comes into play.
"The overwhelming message of our study for the current and future collective challenges we are facing is that even when the challenge is to practise social distancing, social closeness is the solution"
I shared this message directly with the UK government officials when, in July 2020, I received an invite to consult the Cabinet Office on improving public trust following the Dominic Cummings incident. The overwhelming message of our study for the current and future collective challenges we are facing is that even when the challenge is to practise social distancing, social closeness is the solution. Our bonds with family, friends and our country have a powerful impact on our thoughts, daily behaviour and wellbeing.
In an upcoming article from our study, we are showing that people who adhered to the social distancing rules had more positive wellbeing than people who did not follow the rules. This is not because following the rules gave us protection from the disease, but because we felt more socially aligned or in tune with others. It seems that moving together with others eased the pain and difficulties of living under social distancing rules.
As we emerge from the pandemic, I’d like everyone to think about how we can use this very tough experience to create a better world. There are other collective challenges awaiting us, such as the climate change crisis. I am hopeful that the people and politicians of the world will see what I see: We humans have a magic power – the power of bonding with people we haven’t even met before. It is this power of bonding that will help us work together to solve our collective challenges.
Dr Bahar Tunçgenç
Dr Bahar Tunçgenç is a Research Fellow in the School of Psychology. As of December 2021, Dr Tunçgenç will continue her work at the Psychology Department of Nottingham Trent University. Find out more about her research at www.bahartuncgenc.com