4 thoughts on the social psychology of Covid-19

Covid-19 is a communal health emergency, and the social sciences – including social psychology – have a role to play in understanding how the pandemic can be overcome (Drury et al., 2020; Jetten et al., 2020; Van Bavel, Baicker, et al., 2020). My earlier blog post about Covid-19 at https://blogs.canterbury.ac.uk/psychology/keep-calm-but-dont-just-carry-on/ pointed out some of the ways in which social psychology may help. This new post offers four additional thoughts.

1.) We’re all in this together

The first point is that the pandemic is a collective emergency, which must be addressed collectively. Getting vaccinated, keeping a distance from others, covering your face in public or exercising good hand hygiene are all individual actions, but motivated by identification with the community and adherence to its norms. These rules are usually communicated by national governments and health systems, so it makes sense that national identification has been shown cross-culturally to correlate with adherence to public health measures (Van Bavel, Cichocka, et al., 2020). Individualism seems to be negatively associated with compliance; collectivism predicts it positively (Biddlestone et al., 2020). So, as suggested by social-psychological analyses of other crises (Drury et al., 2019; Ntontis et al., 2018), the sense of being in it together – in other words, the sense of social identity (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) – is crucial.

But these links between identity and adherence aren’t automatic. It matters how the sense of shared identity is mobilised towards collective action – in this case, appealing to group members to act responsibly in the communal interest. A recent study (Vignoles et al., 2021) examined how Boris Johnson (Prime Minister of the UK) and Jacinda Ardern (Prime Minister of New Zealand) approached this quite differently: Whereas Johnson remained inconsistent in the social categories he invoked and framed government advice largely as an instruction, Ardern consistently appealed to her audience’s shared identity as New Zealanders, the values attributed to that national identity, and the resultant moral imperative to look after each other. She also made specific reference to the effectiveness of the collective effort, which will be elaborated below.

“In the face of the greatest threat to human health we have seen in over a century, Kiwis have quietly and collectively implemented a nationwide wall of defence. You are breaking the chain of transmission. And you did it for each other.”

(Jacinda Ardern, April 2020)

2.) We’re making a difference

The second point, then, is that people must understand how the collective effort is effective in combating the pandemic. Prime Minister Ardern drills this message home quite robustly, for example by saying that “what New Zealanders have done over the last two weeks is huge.” In line with this strategy, individual health precautions related to Covid-19 have been shown to be predicted by the belief that they will be effective (Clark et al., 2020). Media statistics showing diminishing infection rates during lockdown, consequently, are not just for information, but also bolster belief in the success of such measures. By contrast, failing to show the benefits of compliance runs the risk of undermining it. Feeling powerless (as well as belief in Covid-related conspiracy theories, which inherently involve others who hold the power) was associated with lower intentions to keep a physical distance from others (Biddlestone et al., 2020).

3.) We’re acting in line with our values

Third, shared values and norms appear crucial in the mobilisation of shared identities. Solidarity and helpfulness were mentioned above with reference to Jacinda Ardern’s speech (Vignoles et al., 2021). Other speakers used similar strategies. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany (Bundesregierung, 2020) and Elizabeth II., Queen of the United Kingdom (Crace, 2020; Guardian News, 2020) both expressed confidence that the pandemic would be overcome and appealed to their audiences to do whatever they could to play their part. Both also mentioned compassion and discipline as essential. Additionally, the Queen invoked British strength, pride, and “quiet, good-humoured resolve”, whereas Chancellor Merkel spoke about solidarity, reason, and the need to follow the rules and accept the seriousness of the situation. Both speakers wanted essentially the same things, but chose words that would resonate with the values and identities of their respective audiences. They tried to mobilise national identity by appealing to these national values.

The flip side is that public faith can be undermined if these values are undermined. There may also be conflicting values pulling people in the opposite direction. A Euro 2020 football stadium without physical distancing seems apt to normalise non-compliance, as do high-profile public figures breaking the rules from a position of privilege (Fancourt, 2021). Research has also examined how physical distancing has been portrayed in parts of the media as a threat to social order, mobility and a normal life – a burden in need of being lifted (Nerlich & Jaspal, 2021). Social psychologist Stephen Reicher (University of St. Andrews, Scotland) has, consequently, argued that continuing public health measures become politically charged when their end is built up as a return to freedom (https://twitter.com/ReicherStephen/status/1404469087221211141).

A clear case of norms in conflict is “panic buying” of essential supplies. Following the useful distinction from norm focus theory (Cialdini et al., 1990) between injunctive norms (what others expect me to do) and descriptive norms (what I see others doing), we will all be familiar with situations where one norm or the other is more salient: the injunctive norm from suppliers and public agencies to buy only what you really need, or the descriptive norm where rapidly emptying supermarket shelves show that others are stocking up.

Empty supermarket shelves. Photo credit: Michael Kaspari

04.) We’re doing better than others

This comparison within groups, or societies, is the fourth point. Social psychologist Olivier Klein (Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium) explains (https://twitter.com/olivier_klein/status/1352238856612040707?s=09) how people often come to believe that they observe public health advice better than other people: The rare violations of these rules are much more prominent in the media than the overwhelming majority of cases where the rules are followed. On the one hand, this creates a false impression of public compliance – and thereby of the descriptive norm attributed to the general public, which is presumably influential to people’s own behaviour as described above. On the other hand, Klein points out that it allows the majority of people to cast themselves as “the virtuous” in a downward social comparison with the rule-breakers. This lets people feel good about their behaviour and, ultimately, themselves. Social psychologists know that living up to the expectations of a role or a group is satisfying and good for self-esteem (Iacoviello & Spears, 2021; Stryker & Burke, 2000).

Interestingly, this social comparison creates two sub-groups: the deviant outgroup (small in reality, but looming quite large in the media and people’s minds) and the virtuous ingroup. And, since the ingroup is defined so strongly in terms of acting in responsible and compliant ways, it is reasonable to assume that this injunctive norm would in fact be strengthened by the comparison – even if the descriptive norm remains obscure because the “virtuous” don’t make the news.

In terms of social identity theory (Tajfel & Turner, 1979) the boundaries between the virtuous and the deviant are permeable (see also the literature on subjective group dynamics, e.g. Marques et al., 1998). Social mobility into the circle of the virtuous is possible by acting in line with the group interest. Again, though, we can see that the content of identity is the crucial link between identification and action.


Biddlestone, M., Green, R., & Douglas, K. M. (2020). Cultural orientation, power, belief in conspiracy theories, and intentions to reduce the spread of COVID-19. British Journal of Social Psychology, 59(3), 663–673. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12397

Bundesregierung. (2020, March 19). Die Ansprache der Kanzlerin auf Englisch – The Chancellor’s address in English. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLxrxyk_wYo

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Crace, J. (2020, April 5). Queen praises the people, if not the government, and pulls off a tough gig. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/05/queen-praises-the-people-if-not-the-government-and-pulls-off-a-tough-gig

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Fancourt, D. (2021, January 2). People started breaking Covid rules when they saw those with privilege ignore them. The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/02/follow-covid-restrictions-break-rules-compliance

Guardian News. (2020, April 5). The Queen’s coronavirus address in full. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grt9mqdlIOY&feature=emb_logo

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Jetten, J., Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Cruwys, T. (2020). Together apart: The psychology of COVID-19. Sage.

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Van Bavel, J. J., Cichocka, A., Capraro, V., Sjåstad, H., Nezlek, J. B., Alfano, M., Azevedo, F., Cislak, A., Lockwood, P., Ross, R. M., Agadullina, E., Apps, M. A. J., Aruta, J. J. B. R., Bor, A., Crabtree, C., Cunningham, W. A., De, K., Elbaek, C. T., Ejaz, W., … Gualda, E. (2020). National identity predicts public health support during a global pandemic [Preprint]. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/ydt95

Vignoles, V. L., Jaser, Z., Taylor, F., & Ntontis, E. (2021). Harnessing shared identities to mobilize resilient responses to the Covid‐19 pandemic. Political Psychology, pops.12726. https://doi.org/10.1111/pops.12726

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