Will people do as they are told? | University of Oxford
Woman panic buying toilet paper
Woman panic buying toilet paper

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Will people do as they are told?

By Sarah Whitebloom

The UK Government is currently asking people to limit non-essential contact and travel to work from home, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. But it has not – to date - put in place a system of enforced regulation of movement, unlike some other countries in Europe. The UK action relies heavily on individuals complying with official messaging – doing what they’re told. Will it work?

The UK action relies heavily on individuals complying with official messaging 

What does behavioural science tell us about whether people comply with measures that are not compulsory? If you appeal to people’s sense of ‘doing the right thing’, they tend to do it, according to Dr Kate Orkin, senior research fellow in behavioural economics with Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, in two recent interviews on BBC’s ‘Beyond 100 Days’.

Behavioural economics’ research from non-pandemic contexts suggests that making behaviours a moral duty will be effective, Dr Orkin says.  This suggests the UK Government’s compliance-based approach may have some success.  By contrast, it can be ineffective to try to change a problematic behaviour by highlighting that many other people are doing it.

Dr Orkin quotes one study which documents efforts in the Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park to stop people removing petrified wood. Researchers tested signs with different messages. One sign said ‘Many people keep taking the wood and it is changing the state of the park’. When that sign was up, more wood was taken. According to Dr Orkin: ‘In contrast, when signs simply asked people please not to take the wood, much less wood was taken.’

If you appeal to people’s sense of ‘doing the right thing’, they tend to do it

She argues that the recent statements by the Italian foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, have been a model here. On 12 March, he made a strong appeal to civic duty, saying: ‘Our grandfathers were drafted to go to war; we're being asked to stay at home.’

He also highlighted that ‘the huge majority of citizens are respecting the rules’ – a key factor in encouraging people to comply is for them to know others are doing the same.  

People should realise how much they influence one another. Dr Orkin says: ‘A strong influence on people’s decisions to protect themselves from risk is what people around them are doing.’

She says, if people take Government advice, that will influence those around them to do so too.

These lessons also applied during recent water shortages in Cape Town, South Africa, and Bogota, Colombia. Dr Orkin says, people ‘pulled together’ to make massive, fast cuts in water consumption before cities ran out of water, after strong appeals by local administrations.

So why are people panic buying toilet paper, even when they have been told not to do so?

So why are people panic buying toilet paper, even when they have been told not to do so?

There are two main reasons, according to Dr Orkin. She says: ‘Research shows that, when people feel they lack control, they are more likely to buy useful items, items with a purpose.’

But, she says, the content of messaging is another factor: ‘If you tell people that everyone is doing a bad thing [such as panic buying toilet paper], they will do it as well.’

There are, however, simple solutions. For example, she says that many stores have placed limits on the number of essential items consumers can buy, helping them to overcome their own emotional reactions.

‘It’s really important that people understand the psychology behind why they do things,’ says Dr Orkin.

Dr Kate Orkin leads the Mind and Behaviour Research Group at the Centre for the Study of African Economies at the Blavatnik School of Government.