7 December 2021

Promoting social distancing in a pandemic: Beyond good intentions


Do reminders to promote social distancing during the pandemic achieve the desired effects on behavior? Much of the existing literature analyses impacts on people’s intentions to comply. Sarah Zaggagni and Paolo Falco have run a randomised controlled trial in Denmark to test different versions of a reminder to stay home at the beginning of the crisis.

Sarah Zaccagni and Paolo Falco find that the reminder significantly increases people’s intentions to stay home when it emphasizes the consequences of non-compliance for the respondent or his/her family, while it has not impact when the emphasis is on other people or the country as a whole.

Changes in intentions, however, translate into weaker changes in actions that are not statistically significant. This is consistent with the existence of important intention-to-action gaps.

Only people who are in relatively poor health are significantly more likely to stay home after receiving the reminder with an emphasis on personal and family risks. This shows that while reminders may be useful to protect groups at risk by increasing their own compliance with social distancing, such a tool is unable to change the behaviour of those who face limited personal risks but could spread the disease.

The research is published in PLOS ONE in December 2021.