If People Know What Works to Prevent COVID, Why Don't They Do It?

For many, it may be about the social situations that they find themselves in.

Posted Dec 23, 2020

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
Source: Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

By now, most Americans have had it drilled into their heads that they must wash their hands frequently, wear masks, and socially distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, actually practicing these protective behaviors is another matter. For some people, it may be a matter of principle or, perhaps, political leanings. For instance, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 70% of Democratic-leaning U.S. adults indicated that they had changed their Thanksgiving plans “a great deal/some” versus “44% of Republicans1. However, for others who regularly engage in COVID-19 protective behaviors in their daily lives, it may be about the social situations that they find themselves in, especially if they do not perceive themselves to be members of the at-risk categories for COVID-19 and the immediate danger to oneself is unclear. 

For example, Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron sparked controversy recently over organizing Christmas caroling events in Southern California in which dozens of carolers stood shoulder-to-shoulder sans masks2. Although the attendees may have engaged in COVID-19 protective measures in their daily life, observing most people at the event not engaging in mask-wearing and social distancing may instill the belief that these behaviors are the norm at this event. That is, if nobody else is wearing a mask or socially distancing at an event and the personal benefits of engaging in such COVID-19 protective behaviors seem ambiguous, an individual may prefer to follow the crowd rather than draw attention to themselves by standing out.

This desire to conform to the group, even if the individual is consciously aware that doing so is wrong, may be enhanced at larger social gatherings where they cannot be clearly identified. According to Social Impact Theory, the sheer numbers of people engaging in a behavior will exert more of an influence on an individual’s behavior because people may perceive a greater pressure to conform3; this potentially leads to deindividuation, in which people are much more willing to engage in behaviors, even ones that they know are wrong, if the ramifications of their behaviors for themselves are ambiguous4.

In fact, people will often turn to descriptive norms (perceptions of what others around oneself do) to guide their behavior, even if they know on some level that behaving in such a manner may be detrimental to society5. For instance, a study found that more guests participated in a hotel towel reuse initiative after reading a sign that 75% of the hotel’s guests participate in the program versus reading a sign that urging them to reuse towels to help save the environment6. Thus, the concept of the “greater good” may exert less of an influence on people’s behaviors that the knowledge that the large majority are engaging in it.

Given this information, how can we encourage people to engage in COVID-19 protective behaviors? The evidence suggests measures such as national mask mandates may have more of an impact on people’s behaviors since they change the descriptive norms of mask-wearing and provide concrete punishments for not abiding by the behavior.




Latané, B., & Wolf, S. (1981). The social impact of majorities and minorities. Psychological Review, 88(5), 438.

Lea, M., Spears, R., & De Groot, D. (2001). Knowing Me, Knowing You: Anonymity Effects on Social Identity Processes within Groups. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(5), 526-537. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167201275002

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58(6), 1015-1026. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.58.6.1015

Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A Room with a Viewpoint: Using Social Norms to Motivate Environmental Conservation in Hotels. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482. https://doi.org/10.1086/586910