Science

New insight into behaviour ‘could help with public compliance on Covid-19 rules'

Scientists have found people are more likely to imitate the behaviour of others if they are regarded as part of the same social group.

People are more likely to imitate the behaviour of others if they are regarded as part of the same social group, scientists have said.

They believe the findings, published in the journal PLOS One, offer new insight into human behaviour and could help “maximise public compliance with safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Traditionally, it has been assumed that social contagion – which refers to the spread of behaviour patterns in a group through imitation and conformity – is automatic and inevitable.

But study authors Dr Fergus Neville and Professor Stephen Reicher, both from the University of St Andrews, said “things are not that simple – people do not follow just anyone”.

Dr Neville, who is a lecturer in the university’s School of Management, said: “The results from this study help to explain the variability in social imitation during emergency evacuations, such that people are more likely to be influenced by those who they see as fellow group members.”

More than 1,000 people took part in an experiment designed by the team with the aim of gaining insight into collective human behaviour.

The task involved two groups – red and blue – mimicking the actions of pre-programmed dots which were either red or blue in colour.

Researchers found that participants only copied the behaviour of fellow “in-group” members – those who were following the dots of the same colour – and not “out-group” members – those who were following the dots of a different colour.

In addition, the team found that the test subjects did not copy others if the task was irrelevant to their group membership.

The researchers said the findings could have “important implications for designing behavioural interventions and could be significant in understanding human compliance in relation to Covid-19 restrictions”.

Prof Reicher, from the university’s School of Psychology and Neuroscience, who advises both the UK and Scottish Governments on Covid-19, said: “The fact that people are more likely to imitate others who they regard as ‘in-group’ is critical for maximising public compliance with safety protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“If the public see those who are providing them with guidance as ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, adherence to public health measures will be much higher.”

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