Fear for oneself predicts how people react on enforcing norms to stop the spread of COVID-19

Fear for oneself is predictive of how important norms are and for enforcing them to stop the spread of COVID-19. These are the preliminary results from a research at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on how people perceive, communicate, and enforce the behavioral norms that are meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus as implemented by governments.

01/04/2021 | 10:44 AM

Social Scientists Terence Dores Cruz, Elena Martinescu and Bianca Beersma are conducting a research on behavioral norms like social distancing, wearing face masks, washing and sanitizing your hands, and only being close to your own household. The researchers are still in the process of analyzing results says Dores Cruz, but can share some preliminary results from their survey in the Netherlands. “First, it seems that perceiving norms as important is mostly related to fearing the coronavirus or having a personality that likes to follow rules. Surprising is the element that perceptions of others being at risk if infected does not seem to play a role. However, fear of infection and being at risk if infected for oneself is predictive. This could mean that people are more concerned for themselves in the pandemic and this guides their feelings, perceptions, and behaviors rather than their concerns for others guiding this.”

Another preliminary result tells Dores Cruz is linked to the extent to which people find the norms important. “This is the best predictor of their willingness to enforce the norm both directly and indirectly. We further see that people most often hear others talk about themselves and this contains information about adhering to norms. We see people hear less about the norms on social media and when others gossip and the information here is more about violating the norms.” Another thing which surprised the researchers is not related to the data, although remarkable. “During the data collection we got many emails from participants about how the norms (e.g., masks) don’t work or that don’t believe in anything or even trying to convince me about their views on balancing economic and health costs. I was surprised how strong people felt about this, at least strong enough to email me following a survey.”

With their research they hope to help society better adapt to the new societal norms. “To curb the COVID-19 crisis it is crucial for individuals to adhere to novel social norms limiting infections. Understanding perceptions, communication and enforcement of novel norms informs us about the acceptance of essential behavior change. Investigating how people perceive and enforce norms furthers our understanding of both how social norms are established and how to improve adherence in the COVID-19 crisis, while at the same time contributing to containing the negative side effects norm enforcement strategies might have. Understanding how people learn about others’ adherence to these norms can help determine what authorities should communicate and which channels optimize communication”, says Dores Cruz.

The results of the research are based on an online survey in the UK using Prolific Academic and in The Netherlands using KiesKompas. More results of the research named ‘Perceiving, communicating, and enforcing norms about COVID-19' will be shared in the first half of 2021.