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Sun 5 December 2021

Crowd behaviour helped public health initiatives in the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic, but social proofing also means that people are easily influenced to reject safety measures, writes Clara Hickman

All the zombie movies were wrong. 

Disaster epics warned us that, come a crisis as big as the Coronavirus, the population would retreat into individualistic greed and descend into anarchic violence. The reality turned out to be quite different.

Even before Boris Johnson announced a lockdown on 23 March 2020, the majority of people followed ‘crowd behaviour’ – copying their neighbours, friends and colleagues by maintaining social distance, washing their hands, and following rules to keep the wider community safe. 

Psychologist and Social Psychology Professor at Sussex University, John Drury, calls the way most people responded to the pandemic as the “we’re all in this together” mentality. This is when people mimic the behaviour of the crowd and come together with the intent of battling through a crisis.

From the very beginning, the vast majority of people ‘followed the crowd’ and obeyed Coronavirus restrictions. A survey by the leading statistics database, Statista, reported high numbers of people obeying Government guidelines during the first lockdown in spring 2020. Of the respondents, 79% of British adults said that they were following the rules, while 80% said that most people they knew were also obeying them.

This was, in part, people responding as a crowd. When the vast majority of our community decides on a course of action, it puts pressure on an individual to follow suit. 

Crowd behaviour in a crisis fosters a sense of belonging, collective endeavour and, as Drury says, a belief that we are all in this together. 

Professor Benjamin Rosenberg, a social health psychologist at Dominican University California, believes that one of the reasons crowd behaviour is so powerful is that it gives people “a sense of identity, safety and security”. This is especially potent during a crisis such as the Coronavirus, when people often feel out of control due to its unprecedented nature. 

Prof Rosenberg told Byline Times that one of the biggest factors that cause people to follow the majority is normative social influence. People follow the crowd because they “fear that if they don’t, their group will disapprove or shun them. People are afraid of their group ostracising them if they don’t follow along.” 

But, while in the early stages of the pandemic this led to a conformity with the guidelines, the more the crowd breaks away from the rules, the harder it is to sustain them. This has been the case with mask-wearing. 


To Mask or Not To Mask

The mask mandate in the UK ended in July 2021, meaning that wearing a face covering in public settings shifted from being a public health directive to a matter of personal choice. Some organisations such as Transport for London, theatres and individual shops still require mask-wearing. 

Since then, the number of people wearing masks has visibly dropped. 

Before restrictions were lifted, YouGov reported that 58% of the 18-24 year olds it surveyed were wearing masks. This has now dropped to 46%, even though, according to YouGov, people of this age group are more likely to be in crowded and busy places. 

This is potentially due to crowd behaviour – as people see their peers give up on wearing masks, they are more likely to do the same. 

Charlotte Wilson, a student from Northampton, told Byline Times how she “used to wear a mask all the time even at my Saturday job but now I don’t because I don’t want to be the only one”.

In Staffordshire, Stephanie Bates has had a similar experience. She says that if she “was the only one in my group wearing one, it would be awkward if someone asked me why. I’d feel like there would be no-one to back me up”. 

Whereas a year ago, crowd influence meant that more people wearing masks, now the inverse is true.

This is in spite of the fact that the scientific evidence states that COVID-19 spreads by respiratory droplets when a person coughs or sneezes, thus wearing a mask is a simple and effective barrier that protects those around us – particularly the most vulnerable. That people are rejecting masks despite a strong case for continuing to use them suggests that the power of the crowd exerts more influence over our behaviour than the power of scientific fact. 

Amplifying the power of the crowd is social media. Not only are we witnessing other people’s behaviour on the streets, in the shops or on public transport, we are responding to the online crowd too. 

According to Prof Rosenberg, the impact of the social media crowd on COVID-19 compliance risks undermining trust in public health interventions such as mask-wearing – even in those who currently wear masks. 

“Down the line, through conversations with others, peoples’ opinions and behaviour towards masking might change”, he says. If it “shifted how they think about and value masking, that reflection could cause some change in their behaviour”.


Fuel Crisis and Crowds 

Social media crowds have also played a role in the response to the recent fuel shortages, which led to long queues and even fights breaking out on petrol forecourts. 

Videos and photos of queues and panic on social media triggered a crowd behaviour response, as people followed the crowd to the empty fuel pumps and exacerbated the shortages through panic buying.

Adam Doyle, a retail assistant from Wolverhampton, told Byline Times how “those videos were everywhere you look. You look at your newsfeed and you can’t help watching them.”

The behaviour of the thousands who have rushed out to petrol stations since the fuel crisis was broadcast on social media was an “innate response”, according to author, speaker and consumer behaviour consultant Philip Graves. He argues that people see others doing something and believe that they should be doing it too. This is a form of leading by example, with people believing that a course of action is the correct thing “provided it’s not immediately anti-social or at odds with our beliefs”.

Graves argues that a specific shortage focuses people’s attention which can then lead to a panicked reaction. “Their attention is directed at that product,” he says. “Suddenly, everyone is thinking about how much fuel they have.” This in turn can lead to trigger aversion, or when people “start to think about what they might miss out on if they run out of fuel”.

This was the case for Camilla Hayes, a trainee hairdresser from Reading, who told Byline Times: “I was worried about how I’d get to work. I thought if I didn’t go at once [to get petrol] everyone else would have taken it.”

Seeing how other people act has a huge influence on how an individual reacts to a crisis. “The social proof of what other people are doing is much more powerful than any corresponding messages about whether that behaviour is necessary or desirable,” Graves adds.

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