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.
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. Images of people crammed into underground trains was not down to psychological factors, Drury said, but because they had to go to work.
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 add that the government itself raised concerns the public would “fatigue” of lockdown and flout rules, if brought in too early. Delays in introducing lockdown have since been criticised for increasing the death toll.
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.
“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,” the team write, noting those living in cities often had no alternative but to exercise in crowded parks.
Drury said such portrayals of public behaviour could lead to division in communities and a lack of commitment to measures crucial to tackling the outbreak.
“Where people think that others are not acting as one, that undermines the unity we need,” said Drury.
Such concerns were highlighted by experts in connection with the actions of Dominic Cummings who drove his family to Durham when his wife had coronavirus and subsequently drove to Barnard Castle during lockdown to test his eyesight.
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.
Drury said he is concerned about a possible second wave of the virus, noting the test-and-trace system is not fully operational, while even now some people are interpreting government messaging as meaning they don’t need to adhere so strictly to some regulations.
“Public behaviour is key, but public behaviour is always mediated by government actions, government messaging and how people interpret those,” he said.