How have new social norms emerged as COVID-19 has spread?


As COVID-19 spread across the world, it became clear that different countries were responding to the virus differently. Penn’s Cristina Bicchieri, who studies social norms and their evolution, wanted to understand how a national response had affected individual behaviors.

“We decided to do a study in nine different countries, including Mexico, Colombia, China, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States” , explains Bicchieri, Harvie professor of social and comparative thought. Ethics at the School of Arts and Sciences.

She and Enrique Fatas, a distinguished member of Penn’s MA in Behavioral and Decision-Making Science program, which Bicchieri leads, created a survey focused on how standards related to COVID, such as social distancing and wearing the mask, have emerged. Generally speaking, they found that such changes occur under three conditions, two of which relate to expectations about the actions and beliefs of others involved. These “others” are not only family, friends and neighbors, but also people who live in the same city or county and generally people whose behavior matters.

“Public information and the media can change people’s expectations about what others are doing and what others see fit to do,” she says. But even new expectations may not change behavior. “A crucial step in creating a new social norm is that people have to want to change precisely because they have these new expectations,” she says. “In other words, their preference for engaging in new types of behavior must be conditional to have certain expectations.

Close portrait of a person in front of a black background.

Cristina Bicchieri is SJ Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics at the School of Arts & Sciences. (Image: courtesy Cristina Bicchieri)

To test this in the context of COVID, Bicchieri and his team presented vignettes to subjects from all nine countries, varying expectations of the main character in the story, then asked participants how likely that person would be social distancing and stay at home.

Researchers found that in order to motivate people to change their behavior, they needed to change their expectations. “It’s very important,” says Bicchieri. “It’s not enough to say that sending a message about what other people do or approve of will lead to behavior change. We want to be sure that these social expectations actually cause people to behave differently. ”

But is changing expectations enough? In a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, Bicchieri says it’s crucial not to underestimate the importance of trust in science.

“When we have major public health problems, if people don’t trust the science, there’s no point in convincing them that most people are complying with the new rules,” she says. “In fact, if you expect the majority to distance itself socially and stay at home but you don’t trust what the scientists say, then you will be tempted to go free ride because you will believe that your risk is contagion is low. “

It offers several recommendations that research has shown can contribute to successful adaptation to standards. In circumstances like the pandemic, governments should not downplay science or send conflicting messages. Beyond that, they need to shape their messages for the audience they want to reach.

Bicchieri gives the example of young people minimizing their risk of contracting COVID-19. “A common message, both in Italy and in the United States, was: ‘The elderly and those with pre-existing illnesses are the most vulnerable’. A lot of young people thought, “I’m not old, I don’t have any pre-existing disease, so it’s safe for me,” she said. “You have to consider adapting different messages and changing the way you send those messages to different groups. ”

This joins the last point of Bicchieri. In communication, showing what people actually do far surpasses story what they approve of. Describe a person who has accepted the lockdown and follows the rules of social distancing, for example, and most people will assume that such a person approves of these behaviors. This same inference does not occur when a person is simply described as supporting the measures. “Words and deeds are different,” says Bicchieri. “We can approve something and yet be tempted not to. But if we do something, we tend to approve of it.

Future work in this area will examine whether gender, income, or education level are important in eliciting behavior change. “We live in a world so globalized that pandemics will happen more than once,” she says. “We have to be prepared to try to change people’s behavior. There is a lot of work to be done. ”

Cristina Bicchieri is SJ Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts and Sciences to University of Pennsylvania. She is also a professor of legal studies at the Wharton School. She is director of the Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics and founding director of Master in Behavioral and Decision Sciences program.

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