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COVID-19 and compliance: what makes people stick to the rules?

4 June 2020

News and media


compliance concept with a city skyline

This guest editorial was written for the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of practice monthly newsletter, highlighting new additions to the Regulation Policy and Practice collection on APO. The RP&P collection brings together a range of practical resources from national, local and state/territory governments, regulatory agencies and external institutions conducting monitoring, inquiries and reviews. You can receive this newsletter by joining the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice (membership is free) or subscribe to the newsletter directly.

By Monica Pfeffer, Director of Practitioner Engagement, ANZSOG

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the biggest experiment in rapid behaviour change in the 21st century, as governments try to persuade and regulate entire populations to make huge changes to their lives for the common good. Other mass behaviour change campaigns – for example around smoking or water conservation in times of drought or waste recycling – pale in comparison.

In effect, the world has been conducting a massive natural policy experiment in what makes citizens obey or ignore a range of restrictions, with the possibility of learning from this pandemic about how governments in general, and regulators in particular, can bring about behaviour change in other times and contexts.

Recent surveys provide fascinating data, not only those conducted in Australia by BehaviourWorks Australia at Monash University (Dashboard: How are people responding to COVID-19?) but also surveys in the US, UK, Netherlands, Israel, China and Hong Kong led by Professor Benjamin van Rooij at the University of Amsterdam (How to lock down an open society) and (How to keep up social distancing after lockdown).

While there are always differences between countries and between populations depending on the stage of the lockdown restrictions, a number of findings were consistent and important:

Fear of punishment did not play a role in the compliance of those surveyed in any of the countries studied. Survey participants did not perceive high levels of punishment certainty, with the researchers speculating that this reflected an enforcement focus on flagrant rule-breaking such as house parties and large public gathering. This finding runs actively counter to the popular idea that harsh sanctions are the key to deterring rule-breaking behaviour whereas criminologists have long known that certainty of detection is much more important as a deterrent.
What mattered were intrinsic motivations and practical abilities and opportunities – or put simply, the highest rates of compliance were found when the rules were straightforward and easy to follow (‘stay at home’), people had the means to follow them (knowledge workers able to work from home), and when people believed in the truth and importance of the rules (‘flatten the curve’). Critical issues include trust in authorities and on occasion, the positive or negative effect of leaders’ behaviours.
As the world moves out from conditions of strict lockdown, compliance with social distancing will likely become harder. Intrinsic motivation lessens, rules become more complex and ambiguous and opportunities to violate increase, while it will be harder to enforce the rules.
The findings show generally that governments can achieve massive behavioural change and that to do so they can look beyond a focus on deterrence.

The Australian Survey of COVID-19 Responses to Understand Behaviour (SCRUB) was born out of BehaviourWorks Australia’s desire to bring their knowledge of behaviour, motivation and compliance to bear on an urgent and critical challenge. A March piece in The Conversation pointed out that messaging such as ‘just stop it’ may be actively counterproductive for three reasons that are well established in behavioural science: negative normative messaging, paternalistic messaging and untrusted messengers. Conversely, evidence tells us that emphasising positive behaviours and their good consequences, using more inclusive language (‘we are all in this together’) and utilising trusted third-party messengers can all make behaviour change strategies more effective.

The headline summary of the SCRUB findings for regulators is:

Despite our self-image as anti-authoritarian larrikins, Australians have demonstrated through the pandemic that when we accept the basis of the rules and trust the authorities making them, we are generally compliant. This has been a significant factor in the relatively low numbers of cases and deaths
But this is waning and will continue to wane as risk recedes
Norms aren’t a predictor but they are positive and we know they can be utilised
Deliver interventions that enable people to get what they need and to facilitate working from home
Emphasise the consequences for themselves and others, because we are all intrinsically social
Finally, excellent and continuous communication is vital.

See more content about Public health regulation and Regulator strategy in the ANZSOG NRCoP Regulation Policy & Practice Collection on APO.