Lockdown – why most of us complied

Opinion piece (with a bit of research thrown in) …

It’s an interesting question or three:

  1. Why does news concentrate on deviance and the ‘exciting’ people who break the rules, whilst ignoring those who maintain them?
  2. Why do we sometimes seem to think that the rule-breakers are somehow more interesting, more adventurous?
  3. And why do rule breakers feel convinced that their minority views are the right ones, with the rest of us ‘ conformists’ simply ‘duped’?

Indeed, the positive spin on compliance and non-compliance might not be that some brave souls defy instructions, rather more that most people comply to help society and their community.

There were various episodes of lockdown during 2020-21, something we are not used to in the UK. Why did (most of us) we accept it?

Some 2020 research from Jonathan Jackson et al, from the London School of Economics (LSE) on social norms explained why most of us complied with regulations. By far the most important factor was the idea that we ‘are all in this together’. The researchers looked at behaviours in ten UK cities.

The powers passed by government on 26th March, 2020, were extensive and unprecedented, some felt draconian. Peculiarly, they came from a Conservative government (who normally tend to be anti-regulation). Basic freedoms of free movement and free assembly were removed overnight in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. It came as a shock to our collective system.

The researchers in this study asked questions about socialising, travelling and leaving one’s home for more than the allotted time.

This is the gist of the results, from my understanding:

  • Knowledge about and fear of catching Covid did not explain different levels of activity – those who ‘broke the rules’ were just as concerned about catching Covid – but broke the rules anyway.
  • Making social distancing a legal requirement meant the nation took it more seriously than if it was a recommendation, but there was no huge fear of the law or the police from non-compliance.
  • Framing the call for compliance with protection of the NHS worked. ‘Stay home, save lives, protect the NHS, became a mantra’.
  • The most important consideration was that ‘we are all in it together’ and ‘need to come out of it together’, effectively a sense of collectivity, of shared identity, a common fate and the common good. This may be why some people compared it to wartime (it’s surely dissimilar in every other way).

Which takes us back to the beginning.

This is just one study into compliance/conformity.

I’ve read a lot during the pandemic from those voices who feel that people who do socially distance, self-isolate and broadly obey the recommendations and rules, have been misinformed, are reading the ‘wrong material’ or are victims of a state conspiracy/consensus to ‘keep us all down’. I do understand a dislike of politicians and a distrust of authority, especially if it affects freedoms we hold dear, but (while I am no fan of all government activity/policy on Covid) nor do I like the inference that anyone who adheres to the rules is in some way under-educated.

There is a wealth of material out there on obedience to social norms and mores, but for once, as we begin to see glimmers of light at the end of that long tunnel, what if we praise those who did and do put the community above the individual and give thanks to those who did their bit to keep things going while also helping to reduce the impact of the pandemic?

Here’s hoping we never need such measures to be put in place again, and if enough people act sensibly, and are vaccinated, then Covid-19 will hopefully just become another (endemic) illness the NHS copes with on a day to day basis.

Agree or disagree? Let us know, and please, as ever, keep it polite.



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