Social norms in a pandemic
Almost half of the population in the world is at home to enact social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We have changed our daily lifestyle and habits within some days. What was viewed as normal some months back like walking or going to restaurants have suddenly altered. Even though it can bring individual costs, most of us have diligently complied to it. So why did we all become accustomed to such drastic changes?
One of the main reason is the concept of social norms which has been studied compressively in behavioural sciences. These norms tend to signal appropriate behaviour or expectation within a group of people. So when social distancing was enforced, many people started following because it became a particular behaviour which was ascribed by the group. The underlying reasons why we follow these norms is that as individuals, we want to be part of groups — we don’t want to be left out. And also these appropriate behaviours give us a heuristic on how to behave. Many interesting examples have been adopted to create social norming. For instance, many celebrities post photos to encourage people to do social distancing as it can trigger fans to act like them. Another way is the disapproval of negative behaviour which can reinforce people to act in a particular way. This can be impactful as people want to act like their peers and will be left out if they don’t. The context will matter to apply these reinforcements. But the application of them will save many lives during the crisis.
The insight of social norms can be a useful tool to fight COVID-19. Rather than enforcement and making it seem like a top-down measure, many governments are trying to engage with communities to create social norms to protect against the virus. This way helps communities to co-opt protective behaviours in their groups. Areas like maintenance of hygiene, masks, washing hands etc. could all become social norms which can be effective to fight against COVID-19.