(The Canadian Press)

Peer pressure, public messaging will affect behaviour when rules loosen: experts

Peers in particular can reinforce or undermine new habits, because humans have a strong desire to fit in

Peer pressure and public messaging will influence Canadians’ ability and willingness to maintain safe behaviours as restrictions around COVID-19 begin to loosen, some experts say as they warn fines and snitch lines may not be effective as long-term solutions.

The pandemic that has caused thousands of deaths across the country has also forced people from all walks of life to radically alter their behaviour in a matter of weeks.

ALSO READ: Here’s a phase-by-phase look at how B.C. hopes to re-open parts of society

Those new habits will be tweaked and tested in the coming months as businesses and public spaces gradually reopen, with officials stressing the need to keep up precautions such as physical distancing.

People will be returning to a world that has itself been irrevocably transformed, which will make it easier to resist reverting to pre-pandemic behaviour patterns, said Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto.

Peers in particular can reinforce or undermine new habits, because humans have a strong desire to fit in, he said. If a good proportion of people continue to respect safety guidelines, “it’ll be very easy for others to do because they’ll see that modelled all around them,” he said.

“If a significant number of people start violating all these rules — and especially the people we’re sort of closest to — then that will make it difficult for us to continue to follow.”

Punishing scofflaws, meanwhile, may deter rule-breaking in the short term but is unlikely to foster co-operation over time, the psychologist said — especially if residents are asked to tattle on each other.

“Punishment is the easy go-to: it’s quick, it’s easy, and it feels like you’ve done something. But it breeds a whole lot of distress and resentment,” he said.

The New Brunswick government recently stirred controversy when it launched a COVID-19 information line where residents could report any non-compliance.

ALSO READ: British Columbians can double their ‘pandemic bubble’ mid-May, but no large gatherings

In Toronto, where guidelines shifted this week from asking residents to stay home to urging them to keep their distance when outside, the city website also allows residents to report breaches of pandemic rules.

But fear — whether of fines or of the virus itself — may have spurred people to change at the beginning of the crisis, but its motivational power wanes over time as people learn to cope, according to Frederick Grouzet, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria.

Similarly, an overly controlling approach can trigger rebellion in the long run, because people don’t appreciate feeling like they are being treated like children by their government, he said. He pointed to a spate of protests against pandemic measures that have cropped up in parts of Canada and the United States as restrictions persist.

As the rules grow less strict, a better strategy for governments would be to emphasize the trust placed in residents to do the right thing, and to invoke the need for a collective effort, Grouzet said.

“Acknowledging the difficulty, explaining the rationale, providing more information and supporting their autonomy … is always the most effective approach, especially in the long term,” he said.

A recent study by American researchers examined whether stressing the personal or collective risks — “Don’t get the virus” or “Don’t spread it to others” — worked better to change how people intended to act.

Lead author Jillian Jordan, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University’s Dispute Resolution Research Center, said the initial online survey found messaging focused on community impact of the virus was more effective in swaying participants.

That indicates people are either not as strictly self-interested as some might expect, or they worry that appearing to act selfishly could harm their reputation, said Jordan, who is set to discuss the findings in a virtual panel hosted by the University of British Columbia next week.

However, a second round conducted later in the pandemic, which will be the subject of an upcoming paper, found both strategies equally effective, which suggests people’s response to public health messaging may change over time, she said.

“Thinking about how to make sure we stay updated in terms of what is effective seems important,” said Jordan. “There might be different approaches we need to encourage people to stay vigilant over time.”

No matter what messages they receive from authorities, people will face one major temptation when it comes to maintaining their newly established safety habits, said Joordens, the University of Toronto professor.

“Most of it will be surprisingly easy, (but) the caveat is the desire for humans to have contact, to have at least emotional contact,” he said.

It’s easy to plan video chats and phone calls when we’re stuck at home, but once people see their loved ones again, the urge to come closer than two metres will be hard to overcome, he said.

“It’s almost more than a habit — that’s almost more of an instinct, our need for connecting with other humans.”

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Township of Langley’s volunteer appreciation event postponed for 2020

Spokesperson said volunteers will be notified and recognized for their efforts individually

Langley house linked to crimes targeted for forfeiture

The province seized part of the home’s sale price

LETTER: Tax increases from other agencies unacceptable

As promised, Langley City reduced its portion of tax bill – what about other levels of government

LETTER: Langley resident calls on public to use distancing

A worker in the long-term care field notes that people can have no symptoms but spread COVID-19

Langley quilters save fundraising raffle after quilt show plans unravel

COVID-19 forced the cancellation of May’s quilt show which was more than a year in the planning

MAP: Dr. Henry reveals which B.C. regions have seen most COVID-19 cases

B.C. health officials release a first look at how the novel coronavirus has reached all corners of the province

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

Thanks for helping the Aldergrove Star to continue its mission to provide trusted local news

‘I’m pissed, I’m outraged’: Federal minister calls out police violence against Indigenous people

Indigenous Minister Marc Miller spoke on recent incidents, including fatal shooting of a B.C. woman

Plan in place for BC Ferries to start increasing service levels

Ferry corporation reaches temporary service level agreement with province

IHIT investigating ‘suspicious’ death of Surrey man

Officers found the body while on foot patrol: Surrey RCMP

B.C. starts to see employment return under COVID-19 rules

Jobless rate for young people still over 20% in May

Kelowna Mountie on desk duty following ‘aggressive’ arrest

The officer involved in an arrest that took place on May 30 in Kelowna has been placed on administrative duties

Protests shift to memorializing George Floyd amid push for change

‘There is something better on the other side of this,’ says Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom

Limit gun capacity to five bullets, victims group urges Trudeau government

Current limits are generally five bullets for hunting rifles and shotguns and 10 for handguns.

Most Read