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Making physical distancing the moral and social norm makes more people follow guidance, say BPS psychologists

03 August 2021

Physical distancing needs to be made the moral and social norm to help stop the spread of Covid-19, say psychologists from the British Psychological Society.

New guidance published by the BPS’ Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce reviews the evidence of what works when encouraging physical distancing, and puts forward key recommendations.

Despite restrictions on physical distancing being removed in England, the guidance stresses the role physical distancing can play in reducing transmission.

It found that the perception that catching the virus has severe consequences led to people being more likely to physically distance from others, as did encouraging the belief that physical distancing will have a good consequence, e.g. reducing transmission and keeping people safe.

The guidance also recommends that making physical distancing the moral and social norm can influence people’s intentions to physically distance. Messages that emphasise the social responsibility to prevent the spread of the virus can be more effective.

Professor Jo Hart, who co-led the document, said:

“While restrictions on physical distancing have been removed in England, Covid-19 has not gone away, and physical distancing is an important way to mitigate the spread of the virus. But we know that people need to have the right capability, opportunity and motivation to physically distance, and we have tried to highlight some key ways to do this in the guidance. There are some simple ways to promote physical distancing and make public health interventions as effective as possible which can be used across all settings and environments.

“It’s crucial to ensure the environment enables physical distancing, so implementing things such as a one-way system, and using something symbolic to demonstrate 2m distance on posters.”

Professor Lucie Byrne Davis, co-lead of the document added:

“What was clear from our review was that focusing on physical distancing as a moral duty and making it a social norm can increase the intention to distance. Combining this with environments which are set up to promote distancing and messages communicated by credible sources all help encourage more people to physically distance, which is as vital as ever to reduce transmission.”

Professor Angel Chater, chair of the BPS Covid-19 Behavioural Science and Disease Prevention Taskforce who developed the guidance, added:

“Behavioural science has a vitally important role to play in this pandemic, particularly as we face an uncertain period over the coming weeks and months with restrictions removed.

“We need to ensure that campaigns, policies and practices that aim to change behaviour, are informed by behavioural science. Health psychologists have the expertise and skills to contribute to, and develop effective strategies to promote behaviours to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, in this case physical distancing.

"Greater investment into behavioural science, with more employment opportunities for health psychologists to inform policy and practice, will ensure it can fully contribute to public health interventions and optimise success for the benefit of all.”

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