Social distancing: Why we break the rules (and what you can do about it)

We all see the stories: people having picnics, weddings and other gatherings, even with constant warnings about the global COVID-19 lockdown – and the lives that hang in the balance. Why do some people resist the guidelines, even with mounting daily evidence of the risk?

A recent Leger survey reports that 64% of Canadians fear contracting the virus and 76% worry about it infecting their families. And while 97% claim they are practising social distancing, close to two-thirds say they have witnessed others failing to do so.

At Argyle, we conducted our own survey, asking our networks about the people in their lives resisting social distancing and the tactics they are using to urge them to comply.1

Our respondents told us that most people try to follow all or at least some of the guidelines. When people fail to follow social distancing rules, the most common non-compliant activities include visiting with others, running errands and shopping.

Contrary to some of the news stories, it is not just young people flouting the rules. While 26-34 year-olds were flagged as the most common ‘resistors’, people of all ages were reported to have broken the rules, with 56-65 year-olds the second most common.

Having ‘the talk’
More than 70% of our respondents reported having a conversation with friends and family members not practising social distancing. They appeal to both their own health risks and the risks to the broader community – with mixed, and sometimes frustrating, results:

  • “I’ve explained the risks to them and others multiple times, but eventually gave up when they got continually defensive and angry.”
  • “I tried to focus less on the risk they are facing (not wanting to make them feel vulnerable) and more on the social good aspect – not infecting others.”
  • “They insisted that it [social distancing] wasn’t as important as the media says.”

Those who chose not to talk to their friends and family members cited several reasons, including ‘being guilty of the same behaviour’ and ‘it is not worth the confrontation’.

In the face of so much evidence to support the benefits of social distancing, why the opposition? Well, the Leger survey reports that 13% of Canadians still feel it is being blown out of proportion. This aligned with our results: Many resistors felt the response was an overreaction, with others saying they were not personally at risk or downplaying the event as ‘just a family dinner’ or ‘a desire to keep active’.

So, what’s a concerned social distancer to do?
While our respondents reported that enforcement and peer pressure were the two most powerful tools to get people to take the restrictions seriously, our behavioural change experts at Argyle have some tips you can use to talk to the ‘resistors’ in your life today.

Jill McLean, Argyle’s Director of Behaviour Change, shares that change occurs in stages and it’s important to recognize where others are in the process. Four questions can help determine where people are and how to respond effectively:

  1. Does this person have foundational knowledge of the situation?
    If someone doesn’t understand COVID-19 as a virus and how it is spread, it will be hard to encourage behaviour change.
  2. Do they understand the risk?
    This means understanding the risk to not only themselves but to others as well. This could be in terms of health, economics, the healthcare system, etc.
  3. How relevant is the risk?
    Many see themselves as healthy enough that they would not be affected by the virus. Understanding how COVID-19 can be spread, even by those with no symptoms, can help people understand why social distancing is important to protect the vulnerable.
  4. What is the sense of urgency?
    Once someone has foundational knowledge, understands risk, and feels it is relevant to them, there must be a sense of urgency to make the change. This can be difficult, especially if we are successful in flattening the curve, resulting in a situation that may not seem as dire. This is where Canada is likely to be in the weeks to come.

Positive or negative: What works best?

If the goal is to urge someone to get themselves tested for a disease, it can be effective to focus on what the person has to lose. However, when talking about prevention, scare tactics don’t usually work; it’s more helpful to focus on what they have to gain – i.e., how social distancing benefits the individual, their family and the community.

Consider the messenger

Research suggests that peers are effective message movers. Trusted institutions and influencer figures can also work. Regardless of the messenger, it’s helpful to share evidence from trusted sources, such as Public Health Canada.

What not to do

Suzanne Gaby, Argyle’s Director of Public Health, says it takes an average of 66 days to turn a behaviour change into a routine. Relapse—going back to your old ways—can happen easily before the change becomes permanent. We need to be gentle, non-judgmental and understanding while people are trying to adopt new behaviours. Publicly shaming or yelling at the less-than-perfect adopters of social distancing is going to be counter productive.

Finally, try not to ‘downplay’ the effort it takes to comply with these new restrictions, especially as we go from weeks to months and the spring weather beckons. Compliance is a sacrifice, and for many people, deprived of their jobs, their social outlets, their coping mechanisms, this is more than a ‘staycation’. Staying home and practising social distancing is a way to serve the greater community, and indeed our country. Let’s find ways to have these conversations in a way that is less about shame and more about what we can achieve together – even when we’re all two metres apart.

1The survey was conducted online between April 1, 2020 to April 10, 2020 and received 380 responses.

About the authors:
Kim, Jill and Suzanne are part of Argyle’s Public Health team which has extensive experience executing and evaluating behavioural change programs, particularly related to tobacco cessation, responsible alcohol use, and non-medicinal cannabis education throughout Canada with a specific focus on communities in Western Canada and the North.

About the Authors

Kim Blanchette
Jill McLean

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