The psychology of physical distancing
Spatial distancing behaviour – how close people seek to be when they stand, sit and move together – varies between types of gatherings. In crowds in shopping centres and transport hubs, strangers normally seek to maintain personal space. In the crowds that attend some sports events, festivals and other music events, and some religious events, it is much more likely that strangers feel comfortable in very close proximity – and many will even seek out the most dense areas of a venue.
This article explains why people in many types of crowds seek and are comfortable with proximity, why it is that physical distancing is often so difficult, and therefore why the people we are psychologically close to (our friends and families and the groups we care about most) are the ones most at risk from infection from coronavirus. We then explain how we can harness psychology to (1) make physical distancing easier for people and (2) encourage safe practices among people to stop infection spreading, particularly in mass gatherings and public spaces.
One key aspect of achieving physical distancing is obviously to reconfigure environments so that distancing is physically possible. But even if people can distance it doesn’t mean they will. What we address in this briefing, then, is the psychological question of what determines whether or not people will use the space available to them in order to distance.
Why is physical distancing hard to maintain?
The physical distancing behaviours we have all been required to adopt during the pandemic are often difficult to maintain. Why? In important ways, physical distancing is antithetical to a basic self-process – the comfort we feel with proximity to members of our ingroup, those we define as ‘us’ or ‘we’, and hence our tendency to try to get closer to them. Experimental evidence for this is provided by the ‘two chairs’ study, in which people chose to sit more closely to strangers in a hypothetical ingroup than to those in an equivalent outgroup. The results of the 'two chairs' study have been replicated in numerous experiments, and complemented by field studies also showing that people try to get physically closer to fellow ingroup members, including strangers, which means that they often gravitate to the most crowded parts of crowd events.
Put differently, as well as maintaining 'personal space' on some occasions, on other occasions people seek to share common identity-space. The predictions tested and supported in the ‘two chairs’ study were derived from self-categorisation theory, which is the main framework for understanding the psychology of groups. It suggests that as well as our personal identities, we have multiple social (or group) identities the we share with others and which become salient to us in different contexts.
This basic self-process of sharing common identity-space also helps explain the finding that when pedestrians walk as a group they try to maintain physical proximity to each other (which often slows them down), and that when two groups approach each other, people in each group move more closely to other members their own group (even if there is room to spread out).
The basic self-process also explains why people prefer to be part of big crowds rather than smaller ones, and often report a better ‘atmosphere’ in the crowded locations at a range of gatherings from music events to mass pilgrimages.
It also explains the finding that people can feel safer in crowded events when they are among ingroup members: they feel others will come to their aid if needed, because ‘they’ are ‘us’.
Making mass events into safe spaces: New norms for the ‘new normal’
As well as these basic self-processes which shape the boundaries of the self and which define ‘self-interest’, group norms shape how we express our shared identity. Group norms are the values and rules for conduct associated with each social identity.
Group norms can be very important for both physical distancing itself as well as for a range of behaviours involving a level of physical intimacy that could serve to transmit the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Understanding how norms operate and how they can change can help moderate the tendency to get closer to others and other risky behaviours.
In some groups, the norms for behaviour may encourage group members to touch those around them (as when football fans may hug strangers when their team scores a goal) or share personal items (as when those at a music festival may share bottles of beer). Such norms could spread infection. But in other group contexts, norms for behaviour may function to encourage distancing-related behaviours. For example, research on some religious mass gatherings shows that there are norms that disallow the sharing of resources (such as eating utensils, etc.).
So how do we create and encourage new group norms in order to make health-protective behaviours part and parcel of what it means to be one of the group and, conversely, to make risky behaviours (such as physical closeness and sharing food and drink) at odds with being a good group member?
There are three elements to creating and encouraging new norms for safer spaces.
The first is to draw on an understanding of the relevant group identity, and to invoke higher-order group values (e.g. ‘we look after each other’) in order to promote the new norms. It can then be stressed that the expression of these norms is a way of demonstrating commitment to (and hence acceptance in) the group and its shared values. More concretely, messaging designed to promote the ‘new normal’ of physical distancing should centre on the following themes. People should distance:
- For our greater good
- For our public health
- For keeping those we care about safe
- In line with our values
- To support our health and care workers
- As a way of showing solidarity
- Because they are good citizens
- As a way of expressing who we are
- What we do/are doing
Second, it is important that messages address not only what group members should do (so-called ‘injunctive norms’), but also what they are typically doing (‘descriptive norms’). Messages which hold examples of bad practice and say ‘don’t do this’ can easily backfire because they can convey that many people in our group are behaving like this anyway, even if they know they shouldn’t. Consequently, it is important to provide concrete examples of people showing concern for each other by keeping their distance (instead of hugging or sharing).
Third, the source of information is as important as its content. Messages are unlikely to be listened to if they are just imposed on a group from the outside. It is crucial that the messages are seen as the voice of the group itself, and this means involving group members in the development of the new norms. Well-known and respected members of the group who are seen to embody the collective values should be the face and the ‘voice’ of any messaging campaign. Feedback should be sought from group members in order to develop and refine the messages. In sum, reconfiguring group norms must be something that is done with and not to a group.
Public spaces often involve proximity to strangers, and in many mass gatherings that is precisely the attraction and the appeal. Research in psychology shows that there is a strong tendency to try to be physically close to those we feel psychologically close to – not only our family and friends but also strangers if they are part of our valued groups. This is why these are the people most at risk of infection in the Covid-19 pandemic. The research also shows that the basis of this tendency is a self-process, but that group norms shape the extent to which distancing and risky behaviours (such as sharing drinks) are valued. Group norms therefore affect people’s motivations to adopt safe or risky behaviours.
Creating and encouraging new norms is therefore crucial to deal with the ‘new normal’ of Covid-19. This involves understanding the specific identities and values of the groups at one’s events and venues, as different groups with different identities go to different events. What works with sports fans might not work with festival attendees. It also means working together with group members, building on relationships that have been nurtured in the past, and ensuring that the task of making mass gatherings into safe spaces is a genuine partnership between organisers and attendees.
John Drury (University of Sussex)
Stephen Reicher (University of St Andrews)
Nick Hopkins (Dundee University)
Editor's note: this piece was originally posted online on 1 June 2020.
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