How to Enforce Social Distancing? Your Answer Might Depend on Who’s Breaking the Rules

An ethical question raised by the pandemic is what to do about people who don’t take it upon themselves to follow public health recommendations.

Generally, there are two approaches: educate people and punish them. The first involves informing people about the consequences of not following public health advice while the second is about imposing penalties on people who flout social distancing rules.

So here’s the question, which is pretty simple but potentially becomes emotionally charged: what should we do about people who break rules regarding wearing masks, respecting physical distancing, minimizing contact with other people, and so on?

We’d all like to think that we’d be fair in how we answer that question – in other words, that the strategy we’d recommend to enforce social distancing would be the same regardless of the group of people in question. After all, two people shouldn’t receive different punishments for the same behavior, right?

But a new study suggests that, overall, we might not be so even-handed in the consequences we’d prefer to see for people who don’t adhere to public health requirements.

In particular, the study suggests that people may tend to endorse more punitive measures for those who belong in to a different group, who are seen as less of an “us” and more of a “them.”

The study is detailed in a paper titled To Punish or to Assist? Divergent Reactions to Ingroup and Outgroup Members Disobeying Social Distancing. In it, the researchers recruited 399 British adults and asked them to consider a scenario in which citizens of a given country with high rates of COVID-19 “are not doing a good job following the regulations introduced by the [country’s] government to reduce the spreading of coronavirus.”

Some of the participants were given a scenario where the country in question was Britain while others were given a scenario where the country was Italy.

Overall, people tended to more commonly endorse strategies based on education, such as those using “information campaigns” and “professional support teams,” rather than strategies based on punishment, such as bringing “the army on the streets, to check if people obey the rules” or imprisoning “people who commit severe violations.”

That said, the participants, who were all British citizens, tended to more often endorse punitive strategies for the Italian scenario than the British scenario, even with all other details in the two scenarios being the same.

The researchers put forward a possible explanation for this discrepancy: people might be more inclined toward punitive measures to enforce social distancing for members of a different group, such as people of a different nationality, then for those who belong to the same group.

As the researchers point out, that finding fits with the pandemic’s apparent potential to exacerbate xenophobia and ugly “us-and-them” types of thinking. A similar point has been made by the United Nation’s Secretary-General, who warned of COVID-19 unleashing a “tsunami of hate and scaremongering.”

While we work to find the best response we can to the pandemic, this study offers an important reminder: in thinking about emotionally charged topics, our conscious and unconscious biases tend to raise their heads, making self-reflection all the more necessary.

Image: Flickr/Jay Phagan