From empty supermarket shelves to crowded parks, public behaviour has come in for criticism during the Covid-19 outbreak. But blaming the spread of Covid-19 on selfishness or thoughtless behaviour is misguided and distracts from the real causes of fatalities, according to one of Britain’s leading behavioural psychologists.
“Despite media campaigns to vilify some people as selfish and thoughtless ‘covidiots’, the evidence on reasons for non-adherence shows that much of it was practical rather than psychological.”
Prof John Drury, a member of a subgroup to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said evidence shows that rather than mass panic or selfishness in times of emergency, people actually tend to show solidarity and cooperation.
“All the government evidence shows widespread adherence to the public health measures for Covid-19,” said the University of Sussex professor.
The findings of surveys suggesting that adherence to lockdown measures in the UK is falling, particularly among younger adults, were unlikely to be down to selfishness, said Drury, noting the drop coincided with a decline in confidence in the government. Drury told the Guardian that public behaviour had often been misrepresented. “It is implicit in some politicians comments, but it was more often commentators, journalistic commentators, saying these kinds of things,” said Drury.
Drury’s comments come as he and colleagues published a commentary in the British Journal of Social Psychology arguing that “psychologising” disasters obscures the true causes of bad outcomes and instead blames victims.
The team argue that better explanations for the high Covid-19 death toll in the UK than public behaviour include lockdown being implemented too late because of under-reaction by politicians, as well as systemic problems such as poverty and other inequalities putting certain groups at risk, and failures of communication, including an early focus on self-protection rather than on protecting others.
“Where people think that others are not acting as one, that undermines the unity we need,” said Drury. Unity, Drury stressed, will be crucial as lockdown is relaxed while the success of the test-and-trace system hinges on public trust in the authorities administering and running it. “The same issues of common identity, collective interests, and collective responsibility that were relevant, and were effective, in the case of messaging around distancing and staying at home apply here also,” he said.