I own this path

Why some people don’t do social distancing

By Dr Richard Wolman & Dr Chris Merritt

Over the past couple of weeks, many of us have been there. The dreaded situation. You’re out for your daily exercise in the park, or walking to the shops for essentials, when you see them. Coming towards you. Right down the middle of the path or the pavement. They’re heading straight at you. And they’re not moving.

They’re committing that most inexcusable of current offences: they’re not socially distancing.

What do you do? Get their attention, signal that they should move to one side or other? Vary your walking line in the hope they’ll go the opposite way, creating that magic two-metre gap between you? You need to make a decision, because they’re getting closer.

Do you: A) Wave your hands in silent protest? B) Shout and swear loudly? C) Sound a personal alarm? D) All of the above?

Or do you: E) Take responsibility for the distancing, going out of your way to make room by walking off-piste, in the long grass or the road?

It’s probably E), isn’t it?

But as you walk on — casting an angry backward glance or two — you wonder why you were the one who needed to act for both of you. Why wasn’t it fifty-fifty?

Why don’t some people socially distance?

As psychologists, we can see three explanations:

1. Lack of awareness

Let’s give these people the benefit of the doubt. They’re there, physically. But mentally, they’re somewhere else. Perhaps you can see they’re corralling kids, or helping a more vulnerable person to move. Fine. Maybe they’re lost in their own digital world, mid-FaceTime or zoned out to music on headphones. Less acceptable, though it does happen.

There might be no apparent reason — no one with them, no device distracting them. But they still might not see you, if their attention is completely absorbed by something else — maybe some difficult thoughts. People miss really obvious stuff that’s right in front of them, as the famous psychology experiment shows. It may not be their fault.

2. Lack of risk perception

People are strange when it comes to assessing risk. Someone who would gamble half their weekly earnings on a football match, or drive while drunk, wouldn’t touch a cigarette for fear of getting cancer. Our ability to calculate risk is inconsistent, and it’s very personal.

Present two individuals with the same information on Coronavirus and they will reach two different conclusions about how to act. News articles on gatherings broken up by the police show that, if those involved perceive any risk of transmission, it’s not enough to disrupt their party plans. For a few of these people, not changing their behaviour is a matter of pride: they’re not scared.

It could also be about accessing reliable information. The media focus on severe cases in older people or those with underlying health conditions hasn’t helped. It may have contributed to some people believing they’re invulnerable. Thinking that they won’t get it, and even if they do, they’ll shake it off quickly. That they won’t be the ones with complications. And as for being a carrier, passing it to others without even knowing it? No chance.

The truth is, we don’t understand this virus yet. Assessing its risk to us, and the risk we may pose to others, is difficult. So, we should probably err on the side of caution until we know more.

We can help each other by using reliable sources of information, like government health service websites. Let’s think twice before forwarding on the text from a friend’s friend claiming that “an ICU nurse who works with their brother’s flatmate recommends gargling with vinegar to beat Covid-19”. Let’s get facts.

3. Lack of social spirit

The third, and most inexcusable reason, is a lack of social spirit. This boils down to someone being, essentially, selfish. Usually, this is part of their personality. It may be low levels of what psychologists call ‘agreeableness’ — basically how nice you are, how humble and considerate of others.

A lack of responsibility may also play a part — this could be the result of low conscientiousness, the personality factor associated with a sense of duty and discipline. This is the ‘free rider’ syndrome: I don’t need to do anything, because others will. There’s no feeling of community spirit here — that’s just something other people do.

There could be more sinister explanations, too. ‘Dark’ personality traits describe a generally selfish attitude to life, exploitative of others. If you can get something from someone, you take it, regardless of the consequences for them. Narcissists fall into this category. Their lack of empathy and sense of entitlement would cause them to walk straight down the middle of the path in the expectation that others will get out of their way.

We’re in this together

Ultimately, we can’t know why someone isn’t socially distancing, because we can’t know what’s going through their mind. But, in order to get through this testing period of lockdown, beat Covid-19 and return to a relatively normal life, we need to act together.

This means doing all three things we describe here: being aware of ourselves in relation to others, accurately assessing the transmission risk we pose to one another, and — most importantly — being socially spirited, because we’re all in this together.



Digital Humanist and behavioural psychologist. Here to debate how we make sure humanity is the central consideration for any new technology

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Richard Wolman

Digital Humanist and behavioural psychologist. Here to debate how we make sure humanity is the central consideration for any new technology