Covid 19 Pandemic: What makes people keep their distance?

2021-01-08 Lüneburg. In a paper for the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, a research team described the results of an investigation into people's distance behavior under corona conditions. According to the study, fear of one's own illness motivates people most strongly to stay at a distance. Lead authors of the study are three psychology students in an international research master's program offered by Leuphana together with the universities of Maastricht and Valencia. Professor Dr. David Loschelder of Leuphana University of Lüneburg supervised them.

Until widespread vaccination protection is achieved or an effective drug could be developed, maintaining a safe physical distance between people is paramount to reduce the spread of Sars-CoV-2 and Covid-19. However, in many situations, it is observed that the distance requirement is not consistently followed. The authors of the paper wanted to conduct a study to determine what best motivates people to maintain the necessary distance. To do this, they developed an online and a field experiment to examine responses to different incentives.

For the field experiment, the researchers observed the behavior of 268 supermarket customers. To do this, they prepared shopping carts with four different cues, placed other people in their path at selected locations in the store while they shopped, and observed their reactions. The clues were: (1) "It could be fatal for you..." , (2) "It could be deadly to those around you...", (3) "It serves your own health...", and (4) "It serves the health of those around you...". The sentences were always supplemented by the request: "... Keep your distance (at least 1.5 meters)."

The evaluation of the experiments clearly shows that the reference to the possible loss of one's own health is the greatest motivator when it comes to getting people to keep a sufficient distance. What surprised the researchers in their evaluation was evidence that cues about the health of fellow humans appear to be more likely to cause people to keep even less distance than those who are not subject to any influence on their behavior.

The researchers' conclusion: "Encouraging people to maintain a safe physical distance with appropriate nudges could be an effective and inexpensive measure to protect millions of people worldwide during the current Covid 19 pandemic and potentially during future health crises," Professor Loschelder is convinced.

Study authors:
Anna Neumer, David Loschelder, Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany.
Vita Bogdanic, University of Valencia (Spain)
Theresa Schweizer, Maastricht University (Netherlands)