Social distancing: Why are some people more ‘social’ than ‘distancing’?

On the 11th of March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. WHO experts advised governments to introduce “social distancing” measures to slow down the spread of the virus. This was also to help to prevent healthcare systems from becoming overcrowded.[1] In the span of a few weeks, all of our daily activities were turned upside down: group gatherings were suddenly a health hazard, work became a household chore, schools and businesses closed down, and people were advised against leaving their homes unless absolutely necessary. It all seemed like something straight out of a movie.

Many supermarkets and retail outlets have implemented social distancing measures to protect the health of the public. Taken from Wikipedia

However, some countries have been having some trouble enforcing these measures and sticking to them. Despite governments and health experts spending time and resources to promote social distancing campaigns, people still seem to ignore the general health advice. Some people have been seen going out on walks, throwing parties and even going to public beaches with family and friends. Are these behaviours part of a leisurely form of protest? Or are public announcements not reaching the people that should hear them?

We suggest that it may not necessarily be either explanation. The reality is that many seemingly irrational behaviours are the result of the interplay of social, cultural, and cognitive factors. We will explain all three sections separately using some of the most common theories to shed a light on why some people are disregarding social distancing measures.

Social Factors

We first consider what is perhaps the most basic point: people listen to who they want to listen to. To understand this better, we look at a theory called the social learning theory.[2] This theory proposes that humans learn behaviour through observational learning. This basically means observing role models and mimicking their behaviours.

Children learn through observation. Taken from Oscar Education

Applying this theory, we would naturally infer that government officials are the role models. This is because they are the first figure the public looks to for guidance in a time of crisis. And in some cases that is true; in Switzerland, government officials have a stronger influence than celebrities do on the public’s adherence to social distancing. This could be because people want to believe that their government knows what is best for them.[3]

So, because this pandemic is an unprecedented situation for everyone, we are at a loss for what to do and how to face it. We would then look to figures of authority as role models in deciding how to act. And when the leading figures appear to be divided, their influence on the citizens falters.

Even the two main political parties in the United States have preached contrasting messages about the pandemic. Republican officials have said that the pandemic isn’t actually very severe, while Democrat officials have said otherwise.[4,5] Because of this, areas with more Republicans were found to engage less in social distancing.[4,5] This goes to show that some people are simply not adhering to social distancing rules because their role models have expressed that it is not a priority

People protesting against the stay-at-home order in Michigan. Image by Matthew Dae Smith

On top of that, many officials have been caught flouting social distancing rules. This consequently lowers the likelihood that their citizens would follow those rules.[6] Members of the UK government such as Dr. Catherine Calderwood, Dominic Cummings, and Professor Neil Ferguson, were all seen breaking social distancing rules. In the United States, political figures such as Devin Nunes, Richard Grenell, and even President Trump have also violated the medical advice from their own government. Seeing the ones who enforced those very rules go against their own words gives the public the impression that any rules they enforce can be disregarded.

Cultural Factors

Culture can also influence how one responds to social distancing rules – some may be more inclined to comply, while others … not so much. One of the most fundamental ways cultures can be differentiated is through individualistic and collectivistic values.[7,8] These traits describe the degree to which people see themselves as connected to or distinct from others.[8,9,10]

People with predominantly individualistic traits (typical in North America or Europe) largely focus on how they present themselves as an individual that is different from others.[11] On the other hand, those with predominantly collectivistic traits (typical in Asia) tend to prefer to live in harmony with their community, rather than standing out.

A basic idea of individualism and collectivism. Taken from Euraxess

Based on this, collectivistic cultures would prioritise social obligations and duties more than individualistic cultures do. Because of this, they would abide by social norms over personal desires more often than individualistic groups.[9] It has also been observed during the pandemic that people living in collectivistic societies moved around less than their more individualistic counterparts.[12]

However, some other studies have challenged the assumption that those from collectivistic cultures are naturally more inclined to comply with social distancing measures. During the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, collectivistic groups were shown to prioritised being able to observe specific cultural practices over the need to personally distance themselves.[13]

How do we explain these contradicting findings? Well, individualistic and collectivistic groups can each be further broken down into two different types.[14] Each type has its own thoughts, feelings and responses to different cognitive processes, such as shame and trust.

The two sub-types of individualism and collectivism. Read more

To understand the contradictions in research, we will be focusing on the two collectivistic types: horizontal and vertical collectivism. Horizontal collectivism is driven more by the shame associated with having the disease, and this type is less likely to comply with social distancing rules. In other words, they are more likely to want to hide the fact that they are infected. On the other hand, vertical collectivism is driven more by trust in the authorities and this type is more likely to comply.[14]

Cognitive Factors

Those thoughts, feelings and responses we mentioned above are known as the CBT theory. It suggests that thoughts can trigger emotions, which in turn guide behaviours. In the case of COVID-19, we look at compliance as a behavioural response. If the public is to comply with social distancing rules, they would first need to have the right attitudes and feelings towards the pandemic as a whole.

The basic principle of CBT. Taken from CBT Therapy Cheshire

The most commonly observed factors that make a person more likely to comply have to do with the dynamics of their group. These include (but are not limited to): the importance placed on one’s group, or their closeness to its members. This is somewhat along the same lines of the individualistic-collectivistic divide described above.

However, these group dynamics also manifest in other ways; our attitudes towards our countries and leaders can end up affecting how compliant we are.[15] What this means is that our social distancing efforts can start to wane if those in power introduce undesirable plans, such as unexpected lockdown extensions. Such measures make us lose our trust in the authorities, which adds to our sense of uncertainty around the pandemic. This ultimately results in non-compliance. 

The lockdown in the Philippines has recently been extended till mid-August. Taken from The Jakarta Post

Another major reason why people may not comply to these rule is the denial or underestimation of the risk of the pandemic. For example, if I think I’m less likely to get infected because I’m young and healthy, I’m less likely to comply. This is also known as the illusion of invulnerability.

Other risky thinking patterns include:

  • Reliance on probabilities from surroundings (“I haven’t met a COVID positive individual”)
  • Low possible risk (“it hasn’t happened yet”)
  • Autonomy (“I don’t want people telling me what to do”)
  • Emotional reasoning (“It feels good to not wear a mask, so it cannot be risky not to”)
  • False equation (“this is just another flu”)

Sound familiar?

It’s these types of thinking that lead to rule breaking and non-compliant behaviours. It helps to try to understand the long term consequences of non-compliance, as well as the severity of the pandemic so that we can identify how social distancing rules can be better adhered to.


There are many factors that go into the reasons why people might not be adhering to social distancing rules. We have highlighted some of the social, cultural and cognitive aspects that explain how our communities and our own thoughts can shape our behaviour. Of course, these reasons aren’t exhaustive and there are other factors that contribute in their own way. While we are not suggesting that these behaviours should be justified, this insight into the non-compliant behaviours during this pandemic can help in understanding a bit more about what’s going on in our minds, and that as always, there is more to it than meets the eye.

Academic References

  1. Jetten, J., Reicher, S. D., Alexander Haslam, S., & Cruwys, T. (2020). Together Apart The Psychology of COVID-19. SAGE Publications.
  2. McLeod, S. A. (2016, Febuary 05). Bandura – social learning theory. Simply Psychology.
  3. Abu-Akel, A., Spitz, A., & West, R. (2020, April 9). Who is listening? Spokesperson Effect on Communicating Social and Physical Distancing Measures During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
  4. Qiu, L. (2020), “Analyzing the patterns in Trump’s falsehoods about coronavirus”, The New York Times, March 27.
  5. Stanley-Becker, I., & Janes, C. (2020). As virus takes hold, resistance to stay-at-home orders remains widespread–exposing political and social rifts. Washington Post. April, 2.
  6. Graham, A., Cullen, F., Pickett, J., Jonson, C., Haner, M., & Sloan, M. (2020). Faith in Trump, Moral Foundations, and Social Distancing Defiance During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Moral Foundations, and Social Distancing Defiance During the Coronavirus Pandemic
  7. Hofstede, G. (2001). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Sage Publications.
  8. Triandis, H. C. (1995). Individualism and Collectivism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press
  9. Kitayama, S. et al. (2019) Behavioral adjustment moderates the link between neuroticism and biological health risk: a U.S.-Japan comparison study. Pers. Soc. Psychol. Bull. 44, 809–822
  10. San Martin, A. et al. (2018) Self-assertive interdependence in Arab culture. Nat. Hum. Behav. 2, 830–837.
  11. Giacomin M., Jordan C. (2017) Interdependent and Independent Self-Construal. In: Zeigler-Hill V., Shackelford T. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham
  12. Frey, C., Chen, C., & Presidente, G. (2020). Democracy, culture, and contagion: Political regimes and countries’ responsiveness to Covid-19. Covid Economics, 18, 222-238.
  13. Teasdale, E., Santer, M., Geraghty, A. W., Little, P., & Yardley, L. (2014). Public perceptions of non-pharmaceutical interventions for reducing transmission of respiratory infection: systematic review and synthesis of qualitative studies. BMC public health, 14, 589.
  14. Travaglino, G. A., & Moon, C. (2020). Explaining Compliance with Social Distancing Norms during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Roles of Cultural Orientations, Trust and Self-Conscious Emotions in the US, Italy, and South Korea (Currently under review)
  15. Briscese, Guglielmo , Nicola Lacetera, Mario Macis, and Mirco Tonin (2020). “Compliance with COVID-19 Social-Distancing Measures in Italy: The Role of Expectations and Duration” NBER Working Paper No. 26916.

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