Psychological factors impact adherence and violation of pandemic restrictions

How well people adhered to restrictions during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns varied depending on their learning and decision-making styles, finds a study led by researchers at UCL and Royal Holloway, University of London.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, reveals that multiple psychological factors predicted how people responded to the first national lockdown in spring 2020.

The study revealed that people who adhered less to social distancing restrictions had a preference for immediate gratification, and struggled to adapt to the immediate onset of lockdown guidelines. This was attributed to their devaluing of the larger, delayed rewards that could be obtained through following social distancing guidelines, such as the eventual end of the pandemic.

The study of 442 participants also revealed individuals likelier to disregard social distancing were slower to update their beliefs from new information, suggesting that lockdown violations were due to the increased time taken to modify their behaviour in the face of abrupt change around them, rather than as an act of conscious dissent. They also reported a greater decline in their attitudes towards social distancing from the early to established stage of the pandemic, perhaps indicating quicker "fatigue" in enacting social distancing.

Conversely, those who experienced lower levels of anxiety towards the pandemic were more likely to follow social distancing guidelines if they were sensitive to the magnitude of delayed rewards, perhaps indicating that weighing the greater long-term rewards of the pandemic’s resolution is helpful for adherence and well-being.

These factors suggest that a person’s adherence to social restrictions and lockdowns were more likely influenced by personal cognitive characteristics, rather than personal choices.

Lead author Alex Lloyd (Royal Holloway, University of London) said: "These findings can help us understand some of the psychological factors that contribute to peoples’ decision to follow guidance implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We found that people who prefer immediate rewards were less able to restrict their behaviour to following social distancing rules. We also found that people who are slower at adapting to changes in their surroundings were more likely to violate the lockdown restrictions.

"Compared to other studies that have focussed on people who make active decisions to break the lockdown rules, our findings suggest that some people who violated the lockdown restrictions did so because they hadn’t adjusted their behaviour to the latest guidance."

Senior author Dr Liam Mason (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences and UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology) said: "We hope that our findings could help to plan new ways to promote adherence to social distancing measures, and perhaps other public health interventions, while minimising the negative repercussions for mental health."

Chris Lane

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Email: chris.lane [at]