Promoting Social Distancing in a Pandemic: Beyond the Good Intentions

Centre for Open Science

Reminders to  promote social distancing have been  ubiquitous throughout the COVID - 19 crisis ,  but  little is known about their effectiveness .  Existing studies  find positive impacts on intentions  to comply , but no evidence exists of actual behaviour al change .

The authors conducted a  randomized  controlled  trial  with  a  large representative sample  of  Danish  residents  who  received  different  versions of a reminder to stay home as much as possible at the height of the crisis . 

They found that the  reminder  significantly  increases  people’s intentions to stay home when it emphasises the consequences of non - compliance for the respondent or his/her family, while it has not impact when the emphasis is on other people or the country as a whole.  Changes in intentions, however,  translate into weaker changes in actions that are not statistically  significant. 

This  is consistent  with  the existence of  important intention-to-action gaps. Only people who are in relatively poor health are significantly more likely to stay home after receiving the reminder with an emphasis on personal and family risks . This  shows that while reminders may be useful to protect groups at risk by increasing their own compliance with social distancing , such a tool is unable to change the behavior of those who face limited personal risks but could spread the disease .