Why Even the Most Reasonable People You Know Are Bending Covid Safety Rules

Social distancing guidelines go against our deepest instincts and cultural norms. Can we overcome that as a society?

Illustration: Xavier Lalanne-Tauzia

It was a warm September evening, perfect for a socially distanced outdoor gathering. When she arrived at her friends’ house in rural Pennsylvania, Karen — who asked that we only use her first name to protect her friends’ privacy — dutifully donned her mask and walked straight to the back patio. The hosts, close friends of hers, had planned their get-together carefully. They set up chairs more than six feet apart on their patio, they asked everyone to bring their own drinks, and they planned to order individual meals from a restaurant to avoid sharing food. Although the other two families had their kids in tow, Karen left her two young children at home with her husband, worried that they wouldn’t be able to stay socially distant. After getting settled on the patio, they all took off their masks and began catching up.

For the first few hours, everything went to plan. Then, one of the kids got up to show off his Pokémon cards, walking from person to person and breaking the six-foot rule in the process. No one, however, said anything. Soon after, the sun set and the temperature dropped, and one of the hosts suggested that they make a fire and move down to the lawn.

“At that point, it just somehow morphed into a regular party, and nobody kept any distance anymore,” recalls Karen, who has otherwise been very careful throughout the pandemic. Since March, she has been ordering curbside groceries to avoid shopping indoors; she hasn’t eaten inside a restaurant; she hasn’t been to the gym or taken her kids to a playground. Yet Karen didn’t speak up when she realized the party was suddenly breaking all the rules she’d been so carefully following. “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh, I’m standing right next to my friend, and we’re talking, and it feels really good — this feels like normal times,’” she said. Later in the evening, Karen remembers someone saying “Well, we’re definitely not six feet apart anymore,” and everyone laughing and carrying on.

Social forces have a strong hold on us and shape our choices even when we know better — sometimes even when we don’t actually want to be doing what we suddenly find ourselves doing.

If you’ve been in a social situation during the pandemic, parts of this story may sound familiar. Recently, one friend even asked me over social media, “Who hasn’t experienced this?” Some of the most ardent pandemic rule-followers have made bafflingly unsafe decisions in group settings over the past six months, and in part as a result, small group gatherings have been responsible for a significant portion of Covid-19 spread. “It’s not because we’re irrational,” says Donelson Forsyth, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Richmond who studies group behavior and moral judgment. “It’s because we’re social creatures.” Social forces have a strong hold on us and shape our choices even when we know better — sometimes even when we don’t actually want to be doing what we suddenly find ourselves doing.

The lure of conformity

One big reason we violate our values in social situations is because we feel a compelling need to conform. We all like to think of ourselves as unique — different and special from the rest of the herd in important ways, and brazen enough to stand up for our beliefs. But in reality, we often feel compelled to join in on what others are doing or saying, even when we don’t particularly want to.

In a series of landmark studies conducted in the 1950s, Swarthmore psychologist Solomon Asch convened groups of seven to nine men and showed them two large white cards. On one was a vertical black line, and on the other were three vertical black lines of various lengths. The experimenter asked each man to state aloud, to the group, which line on the second card was the same length as the line in the first card — an easy question to answer, as only one of the three lines came anywhere close. (In preliminary studies, people made mistakes less than 1% of the time.)

What Asch’s subjects didn’t know was that the experiment was, in fact, rigged. In the small groups he convened, only one man was actually a research subject. The rest were volunteers who had been instructed to answer incorrectly, with the research subject answering last. As Asch and his colleagues ran the experiment over and over, they noticed that when every other person in the room gave the same wrong answer, more than a third of the research subjects also answered incorrectly. It seems they felt it was more important to conform to what the strangers around them were saying than it was to be truthful or correct.

We conform even when doing so puts ourselves and others at risk. In a well-known 1968 study, social psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley brought college student volunteers into a room to fill out a questionnaire. Some were left in the room alone, while others were put in a room with two other people who were, as in Asch’s experiment, actually working for the scientists. Soon after, smoke poured into the room, and Latané and Darley watched what the subjects did in response. Three-quarters of the subjects who were left alone in the room got up to investigate and report the smoke. But when the subjects were in a room with two other people who ignored the smoke, only one in 10 got up to report it. When we are in potentially dangerous situations but others seem unfazed, we’ll remain unfazed, too.

Put another way, “inaction breeds inaction,” says Catherine Sanderson, PhD, a social psychologist at Amherst College and the author of Why We Act: Turning Bystanders Into Moral Rebels. “The more people don’t speak up, the more it confirms to you that everyone is okay with it.” When we see others not wearing masks or not socially distancing but no one seems bothered, we are unlikely to do much about it, either.

Why do we ignore our conscience when others are around? First, we don’t want other people to judge us for overreacting or being disruptive. We also don’t want to make other people feel bad. If Karen had spoken up when her friends began mingling, they might have considered her a prude, or they might have felt embarrassed for being called out. “We don’t like to do anything that could rend social harmony,” says David Dunning, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan who studies decision-making and misbelief.

Although the impulse to be polite is strongest among individuals we like, it can shape our behavior even among people we barely know. A few months ago, a friend of mine was in her yard with her toddler when a new neighbor walked past with his dog. To be friendly, she told him that her daughter loves dogs, at which point he walked right up to them without a mask so they could pet the dog. She was extremely uncomfortable about how close he stood, but she didn’t say anything because “I didn’t want to come off as rude or haughty,” she says. But, she added, she now constantly thinks about “how social decorum kept me from doing what I thought was best.”

If you don’t say anything when the first person breaks protocol, you second-guess the wisdom of speaking up when the fourth person does, since you hadn’t said anything before. Suddenly, it feels impossible to do anything.

This need to be polite — and not cause a ruckus — causes us to stay put in risky situations rather than extricating ourselves, even when we want to. In early October, Eric, a graphic designer who lives in New York City, attended his cousin’s wedding only after the bride and groom reassured the guests that the wedding would involve strict safety protocols. (Eric asked us not to print his last name to protect his family members’ identities.) Yet when he and his parents arrived at the rehearsal dinner, they — along with 80 other guests — were escorted into an indoor dining room with no windows, and they were the only ones wearing masks. Although he felt deeply uncomfortable, Eric didn’t want to leave and upset the bride and groom. “I felt like it was super risky. But I also wouldn’t miss my cousin’s wedding,” he says. “I’m like, I’m not going to not be here. But I also don’t feel like this is a very intelligent decision.”

When social situations make us uncomfortable, we also find it harder and harder to do anything proactive as time goes by, because we then have to justify our prior lack of action, Sanderson says. Since Karen didn’t say anything to the kid who came around with his Pokémon cards, it might seem weird for her to suddenly demand more space around the fire an hour later. This is why it’s so easy for social situations to slowly inch toward being unsafe: If you don’t say anything when the first person breaks protocol, you second-guess the wisdom of speaking up when the fourth person does, since you hadn’t said anything before. Suddenly, it feels impossible to do anything.

Another social force that makes us unlikely to buck the trend is pluralistic ignorance — the notion that if we don’t feel okay with something that’s happening, we must be the only one feeling that way. “We all think that we are all alone — we all think that we are different from other people. And this happens in all kinds of situations,” Sanderson says. Chances are, though, if you’re in a situation in which social distancing has broken down, you’re not the only person who’s uncomfortable: A recent Gallup poll found that 54% of Americans are worried about the lack of social distancing in their communities. But everyone else, like you, may be staying quiet out of fear. It’s a vicious cycle.

Ultimately, then, social situations are often much more complex than we consciously realize — and we respond to that complexity in unconscious ways. “When we think about things in the abstract, we think very black and white: ‘If I saw somebody take off their mask, or walk into a party without a mask on, I would speak up, I would say something, I would ask that person very nicely to put their masks back on.’ But the challenge is, when we’re actually in that situation, it becomes much more loaded,” Sanderson says. “We worry, are we going to offend this person? Are we going to offend the host? Are we going to feel embarrassed? Does this person have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask that I’m not aware of? And we all of a sudden are confronted with a much more complex situation than we anticipated.” Often, this complexity paralyzes us into doing nothing.

Culture and connection

American culture shapes our propensity to ignore social distancing rules, too. Michele Gelfand, PhD, a cultural psychologist at the University of Maryland and the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire Our World, has studied cultures around the world and has found that the United States — along with countries including Belgium and Brazil — are “loose” in that citizens tend to tolerate rule-breaking and individuality, whereas other countries, including Japan, Singapore, and Austria, are “tight” in that they more strongly value rule-following and uniformity.

Gelfand has been tracking which cultures have fared better in the pandemic and has identified a clear trend: Loose cultures, including the United States, “struggle way more with cases per capita and deaths per capita,” she says, in part because citizens are more resistant to giving up their freedoms and following the rules. Put another way, our rule-following problems aren’t just rooted in human nature; American culture exacerbates them. (Gelfand adds that loose cultures often tighten in threatening situations in order to stay safe, but that doing so requires good leadership, which the United States has not gotten under President Trump.)

In the United States, the pandemic has also become highly politicized — so the decision to follow (or not follow) public health guidelines has become a means of showcasing political identity. Again, we can blame the Trump administration for so strongly polarizing the issue. In June, the president went so far as to say that people wore masks not to keep others safe, but to show their disapproval of him. “There are other nations where there are real divisions between conservatives and liberals, but they didn’t divide on this issue,” says Dominic Packer, PhD, a social psychologist at Lehigh University who studies how groups shape identity. “It didn’t have to be this way.”

One more influence that doesn’t help in social situations is alcohol, which is more widely consumed in the U.S. than in many other countries. Alcohol clouds our judgment and leads us to take risks. “When you’re drinking, you’re not engaging in as much conscious deliberation and thought, so you’re relying more on habits and roles and norms to guide your behavior,” says Jay Van Bavel, PhD, a psychologist and neural scientist at NYU who studies how social dynamics shape our perceptions and evaluations. Unfortunately, when drinking, we tend to fall back on habits and norms set before the pandemic.

We can see the impact of alcohol by looking at what’s been happening on U.S. college campuses. According to the New York Times, more than 50 colleges have reported at least 1,000 cases of Covid-19. But even without alcohol, adolescents and young adults take more risks than older adults do — and they are also “primed to be very sensitive to social influence and social norms,” says Jessica Sutherland, PhD, a social psychologist at York University in Ontario who studies adolescent decision-making. Considering all of these factors, teens and young adults may be among the most likely to participate in social gatherings that fuel the spread of Covid-19.

“It just felt so good to be around other people that we reverted to the old ways and it totally, totally slipped our mind.”

Of course, alcohol impairs judgment at any age. Danielle, a 39-year-old radio journalist living in the Bay Area, recalls one day in July when, after helping friends move into a new house, she and her friends celebrated by having a few drinks. (Danielle, too, asked that we only use her first name to protect her and her friends’ privacy.)

Throughout the day, the group had been careful to wear masks when indoors and to remain socially distanced both indoors and outdoors. But suddenly, after a couple of drinks, she found that she and her friends were all huddled around a piano inside, many of them unmasked, loudly singing. “It just felt so good to be around other people that we reverted to the old ways and it totally, totally slipped our mind,” she says.

Danielle’s experience highlights another reason why it’s so tempting to break rules around our friends right now. Stress and anxiety — which so many of us are experiencing as a result of the pandemic — drive us to seek comfort among close friends and loved ones. In these situations, “the need to belong speaks to us louder,” Forsyth says. Put another way, public health guidelines are asking us to eschew the very thing we are now craving most. So when we do occasionally get to see our friends, the last thing we want to do is stand six feet away from them wearing masks.

A false sense of security

Risk perception is a tricky thing, and often, our inability to recognize danger fuels bad decision-making, too. Most of us are victims of what is known in psychology as perceived invulnerability — we think we’re in less danger than other people are. As an example, if you were to tell people that their neighborhood is at high risk for crime, Dunning says, they will probably accept and acknowledge it — and then simultaneously believe that they aren’t in any danger. “The problem with health campaigns or any sort of public safety campaign is [that] people will accept the message for other people, but not for themselves. And that’s been documented so many different times with so many different safety and health threats,” he says.

Research suggests that we expand this perceived safety net to close friends and loved ones, too. “What we find in our research is basically that the more you care about the person, the more you include them in that optimistic bubble,” says Andreas Kappes, PhD, a psychologist at the City University of London. In a study published in 2018, Kappes and his colleagues found that people perceive that they and their friends are less likely to suffer negative life events, such as cancer, than strangers are. This tendency helps to explain why we often relax while socializing with people we trust: We assume that they are perfectly healthy, even when on some rational level we know there’s a chance they could have the coronavirus.

It doesn’t help that people with Covid-19 can be asymptomatic, adds Joshua Ackerman, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan who studies how people respond to threats. We rely on sensory cues when it comes to assessing people’s health — if we see people coughing or sneezing or otherwise looking ill, we know to keep our distance. If they look healthy, on the other hand, we tend to assume they are, because their appearance “doesn’t trigger that evolved psychology of disease avoidance,” he says.

That ambiguity — that we can’t tell, in any given moment, whether we’re truly at risk or not — makes it much harder for us to make informed decisions. If everyone you’re hanging out with actually is healthy, then there really is no reason to mask up or remain distanced. But if someone is asymptomatic and contagious, you absolutely should be taking precautions. Problem is, it’s impossible to tell the difference. There’s also no real way to know how dangerous the coronavirus will be if you catch it — maybe you’ll have a mild infection and be just fine, or maybe you’ll end up in the ICU.

Accentuating this ambiguity is the fact that information and guidance regarding Covid-19 has been evolving over time, and not all of us can keep up with the changes. “A reason why people may go in different directions about what decisions they make is that they don’t know all the facts,” Dunning says. The conflicting information coming from our government doesn’t help, Van Bavel adds. It’s “providing layer upon layer of uncertainty,” he says.

Most of us are victims of what is known in psychology as perceived invulnerability — we think we’re in less danger than other people are.

Unfortunately, uncertainty itself drives us to take more risks, too. Research suggests that we use uncertainty to rationalize questionable decisions. If people stop socially distancing at a get-together, we will downplay the potential dangers so that we feel safe. We will “perceive the risk as less than it actually is,” Kappes says. We will “use the uncertainty and interpret in a way that is self-serving.”

Overcoming our instincts

Clearly, we’re being pushed to bad behavior by so many forces — is there any hope of overcoming them and staying safe? Social psychologists say yes. In fact, simply reading this piece and learning about these influences may help. “Understanding it helps you overcome it,” Sanderson says. Her research has shown that when people are taught about health-related social norms and realize that their previous beliefs were inaccurate, they make healthier decisions in the future.

Another helpful strategy is to attend social gatherings with at least one like-minded person who will back you up if things go awry. “If you have a friend with you, it’s much easier to speak up,” Sanderson says. At the wedding Eric attended, Eric’s brother and his wife, who were both extremely worried about the coronavirus, arrived at the rehearsal dinner, saw that it was being held inside, and promptly left together. It would have been much harder for his brother to make such a bold decision alone.

Indeed, Asch’s line-comparing experiments found that the presence of just one other person in the room who gave an answer different from the rest of the group — even if that answer was also incorrect — strongly increased the chance that the research subject would refuse to conform, too. “Having a sense that you’re not the only one who’s being different suddenly frees you to be different,” Packer says. And if you do speak up or leave, you’re opening things up for other people to do the same. “In all probability, you’re not the only person there who has a problem with it and is worried about it,” he says. “If you act differently, then quite likely somebody else will change their behavior as well.”

Before you attend a social gathering, it’s also wise to think through various scenarios and how you’ll resolve them — a tactic known as implementation intention. “It’s developing a whole plan of, ‘Okay, I’m in this situation, somebody isn’t social distancing. Here’s how I’m going to respond.’ And if you plan all that stuff out in advance, people show a much higher compliance rate in terms of sticking to their own goals,” Ackerman says. Importantly, this approach involves not just thinking through what might happen — it also requires coming up with solutions, in advance, for each scenario.

If one aspect of your plan is to speak up when someone breaks a rule, you should also plan to do so as soon as things start going awry. “It is definitely the case that speaking up early is better,” Sanderson says. That’s because doing the right thing gets harder as time goes by and behavior inches more and more in the wrong direction. And again, since speaking up communicates to everyone else how you feel, and others probably feel uncomfortable, too, taking action will help other people do the same.

But how should you speak up? Psychologists recommend framing requests as being about you and your needs — not chiding other people for being irresponsible. Perhaps, Sanderson suggests, you say something like “I’m sure you’re healthy, but my mom has a preexisting condition so I’m being extra careful; would you mind putting on your mask?” Framing the issue in this way also taps into people’s empathy, helping them recognize that their choices may affect others who are more at risk. Kappes’ research has shown when you frame uncertainty in ways that illuminate the potential for harm to vulnerable individuals, people behave more carefully and compassionately.

The good news is, with stronger, more consistent, and evidence-based leadership from the White House in 2021, it will almost certainly become easier for us to maintain social distancing and wear masks. These behaviors will, in effect, become new social norms that help to keep us safe. There will, of course, still be times when we’ll desperately want to ignore the recommendations and feed our growing social hunger. When that happens, we should remind ourselves that our social brains are tricking us — and that it’s far more important for us to ensure that our loved ones are still here to embrace when the pandemic is over.

Science and parenting journalist. Author of HOW TO RAISE KIDS WHO AREN’T ASSHOLES. Sign up for my free parenting newsletter: melindawmoyer.substack.com.

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