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Why do people comply: exploring regulation during COVID-19

4 June 2020

News and media


Compliance theme with blurred city abstract lights background


The response to the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the biggest experiment in behaviour change in the 21st century, as governments try to persuade citizens to make huge changes to their lives for the common good.

So what actually makes citizens obey or ignore new restrictions, and how can governments best regulate behaviour during a pandemic?

An ANZSOG/ National Regulators Community of Practice webinar on 26 May 2020 – Why do People Comply brought together experts from the Netherlands and Australia to discuss how people had responded to the new laws, and reasons behind high rates of compliance.

The panel was facilitated by Jenness Gardner, CEO of the Economic Regulation Authority in WA. It consisted of Professor Benjamin van Rooij, from the University of Amsterdam, who has been part of a cross-border research project looking at compliance in the UK, Netherlands and the USA; and Monash University Professor Liam Smith, director and co-founder of BehaviourWorks Australia who has conducted recent research on COVID-19 compliance in Australia.

Professor van Rooij said that surveys across the three countries had found that self-reported compliance was extremely high, especially for these with a specific moral alignment and a capacity to comply. There was very little difference in compliance based on political allegiance, although there was evidence from the UK that people who identified as conservative were less likely to comply.

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He said that the role of social norms was identified as important, as was knowledge of the rules. In the UK, oddly enough, it found that people more frightened of the virus were less likely to comply with regulations.

“A key point is that fear of punishment did not play a role in any of the surveys. But what did were intrinsic motivations, practical abilities and opportunities,” he said.

“This shows that governments can achieve massive behaviour change and that to do so they can look beyond a focus on deterrence.”

The Australian Survey of COVID-19 Responses to Understand Behaviour, or 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.

Professor Smith said SCRUB showed that self-reported rates of compliance were also high in Australia, although the most recent iteration of his survey showed they had declined from April to May, both for staying at home, and keeping safe distances in public.

“Again, personal norms were important and people were quick to form new habits and routines,” he said.

“The perception that others were doing the right thing was not a predictor of behaviour, but this was based on self-reporting, and this can be misleading as people underestimate how others behaviour influences them.”

He said that overall Australians were generally compliant but governments could make gains by “delivering interventions that enabled people to get what they needed, and to facilitate working from home”.

Ms Gardner asked whether the results were bad news “for fans of tough policy”, Professor van Rooij said that this was possibly true but they showed governments had the power to make “all kinds of rules without relying on enforcement”.

“We need to ask what do we expect punishment to achieve, and how does it interact with people’s other motivations,” he said.

She asked whether the fact all countries were responding to the same pandemic would be a chance for researchers to control for culture and see how regulation played out in real time.

Professor Smith said that so many researchers were asking questions, and would be looking back at the events of 2020/21 for decades to come.

Professor van Rooij said that despite the amount of research being done it would be difficult to isolate crucial factors because “as well as well as crossing cultures you are trying to hit a moving target – rules are changing, so is enforcement and the nature of moral appeals.”

“I don’t think you can easily reduce culture, because you are trying to essentialise something that is very complex,” he said.

Audience members posed the question of how the actions of leaders such as US President Donald Trump, and the UK’s Dominic Cummings would affect public compliance, and the panel agreed that clear enforcement and messages from leaders were important in maintaining compliance.

More generally, Professor van Rooij said that communication was a real key to enforcement.

“If you want to use ‘moral appeals’ or even ‘social norms’; as part of regulation you need to look at how you communicate.

“We need to think about ‘how do we get the right message out?’. We need psychologists and regulation specialists to team up with communications scholars.”

Find more ANZSOG/ National Regulators Community of Practice events at the ANZSOG events page.