Packed beaches in a pandemic – the science that explains why

Date: 03/07/2020 Written by: Kelly 6 minutes to read.
Kelly explores the science behind lockdown behaviour.

Hordes of beachgoers sparked social media uproar last week when temperatures soared, but after months of compliance and sacrifice, why are people now being tempted by the sea and sand when we are not yet in the clear?  

Thousands of people flocked to the seaside last week sending temperatures rising – and I’m not just talking about the weather. People took to social media [including me, by the way] to share this clear disregard for public safety in the middle of a pandemic. “Perhaps they live in flats” I was told when I suggested that maybe it’s time everyone was sent back to work and school. Afterall, these places appear to be the safest places to visit with the strict health and safety measures imposed.

It was a fair point – the comment about people living in flats. The thought of being cooped up on the 22nd floor in 30 degrees heat would force me onto the beaches. But is the limited access to outdoor space really the driver for the behaviour we saw last weekend? I’m not so sure.

For weeks we saw compliance and sacrifice. So many people stayed in when we were told to do so. So, when thousands headed to the beach, or joined a BLM march, or gathered to celebrate Liverpool’s league win, why were so many people being so cavalier in the face of clear instructions from the nation’s top scientists and public health experts to social distance? 

Fatigue is one argument. But back in March, when the Government suggested some people could fatigue if lockdown persisted, 600 behavioural scientists penned a letter to say that there was little evidence that this could happen. That’s true. But this pandemic, at this time, which occurred at a point when people have more personal freedom than ever before, there is also little evidence that people wouldn’t fatigue either. Nevertheless, fatigue is an unlikely reason for why some people have breached social distancing guidelines.

Black Lives Matter Protests aside – as I think the reasons for sacrificing social distancing is different, one possible – and strong reason for flocking to the beaches or not following the guidelines on a day to day basis, is psychological reactance. Behavioural scientists have long studied the idea of reactance, a concept pioneered by Jack Brehm in 1966. In his words, psychological reactance refers to the idea that when individual freedoms are “reduced or threatened with reduction,” people tend to be “motivationally aroused to regain” those freedoms. That is, when you tell me what to do, a part of me feels compelled to do the opposite. For example, every parent knows that when you tell a child to do something, they seem almost biologically predisposed to doing the exact opposite thing. “Don’t eat that” you shout. “Maybe I should try that…” they think. In short, when someone tells you how to behave, you feel your liberty threatened and “lash out” not only by ignoring the advice but by leaning into behaviour that goes against what is being suggested.

Psychological reactance is also made worse when a person witnesses someone of perceived importance – a leader or role model - going against an order or official advice. When prominent politicians and figureheads like US President Donald Trump and Dominic Cummings blatantly ignore the experts’ advice in very public ways, a growing antipathy towards expertise and intellectualism grows in our public discourse. It is not uncommon to hear many people say that these leaders and ‘responsible people’ are snobbishly looking down on the common person. This makes reactance a convenient way to stick it to the elites who are trying to stifle our freedom by dictating to the masses.

It is possible that in the countries that champion personal freedom as a virtue – like the US and UK - people might be more predisposed to reactance behaviours than others. People appear to be far more compliant in China where freedoms appear to be more supressed.

Lastly, as we slide down the first curve [there could be a second wave coming, but for now we are on the way ‘out’] this behaviour on the beach could simply be put down to dismissiveness. It is easy to wave a dismissive hand at the expert advice – even if the messenger is liked and trusted like our Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty which many people respect; “I mean, no one seems unwell—this is a hoax!” or, as we heard in a TV interview with someone on Bournemouth Beach “I don’t know anyone with it and it won’t affect me” (Worryingly, climate change is a crisis with a similar character, and this is the view many young people hold on smoking) and this attitude [and subsequent behaviour] is fuelled by another social virus that has taken root in our society in recent years: misinformation. With social media in particular rife with information supporting almost any perspective on the ongoing crisis, people are increasingly able to locate and follow only their preferred advice.

Sadly, this advice is often based on fictions, or is politically motivated, which makes it even harder for the correct advice to shine through.

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