Blanket approach to increasing compliance with social distancing unhelpful

Personalised interventions are necessary to harness the potential of behavioural science in improving compliance with COVID-19 recommendations.
- Dr Dario Krpan
covid-19 London 747 560

A one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging more compliance with social distancing rules, instead of targeting sub-groups, can be ineffective and may even lead to less compliance, a new paper from LSE has found. 

In the study, the researchers tested a number of behavioural interventions designed to increase compliance with social distancing rules. These ranged from asking participants to write a letter to a loved one vulnerable to COVID-19 to describing how social distancing can help save the economy.

They found the most effective intervention was information based and aimed at tackling misconceptions. In this intervention, participants were presented with six hypothetical scenarios in which people may violate the rules due to a misconception (e.g.: the misbelief that it’s fine to socialise with neighbours who live in the same building).

After reading each scenario, the participants were asked if the action was appropriate. Upon answering, the participant was provided with feedback clarifying whether their answer was correct. Any wrong answers were corrected with a detailed explanation debunking the misconception.

However, the authors found this intervention was only effective in those who had started practising social distancing relatively recently (in the last 14 days). For those who had been social distancing for longer (37 days or more) the intervention backfired and, in some cases, actually reduced compliance with the rules.

The researchers surmise one explanation for this could be due to ‘psychological reactance’ – with those already convinced of the need to social distance becoming irritated by being told to comply even more and ‘lashing out’.

The researchers suggest, therefore, that a blanket approach to implementing behavioural interventions would be unhelpful. They argue instead that interventions should be targeted to subgroups of individuals such as those who have started practising social distancing more recently and those who have trouble self-distancing and have broken the rules.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Dario Krpan from the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science at LSE said: “Our results indicate that personalised interventions are necessary to harness the potential of behavioural science in improving compliance with COVID-19 recommendations. They suggest that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be helpful in increasing compliance.”

For a copy of the paper, When Behavioural Science can Make a Difference in Times of COVID-19 please click here

This article was updated on 16 September 2020 to reflect the fact the paper has now received peer review and has been published. 

Behind the article

The study has been conducted as a collaboration between Dr Dario Krpan and B4Development, the MENA region’s first behavioural insights and nudge unit.

For more information, please contact Dr Dario Krpan on: