Psychology of why people ignore social distancing

Psychology of why people ignore social distancing

Most of the world now live in conditions of quarantine. Authorities communicate what people must and must not do yet many people ignore recommendations that are based on science.

What causes people not to follow recommendations or instructions? I work as a clinical psychologist and in this text I will present my reflections on this.

The first thought is that people are idiots or we can even use a newly emerged term covidiot (someone who ignores the warnings regarding public health or safety). Unfortunately, in the face of this situation, such an explanation is only valid for a small number of people. But yes, there are covidiots.

However, social distancing ignorance is usually due to what can be called cognitive biases, which are described in detail by Nobel Laureate of Lithuanian origin Daniel Kahneman in his famous book „Thinking, Fast and Slow“.).

The author distinguished 2 systems of thinking –  the one which is fast and and the one which is slow. The quick system makes decisions quickly, stereotypically, unconsciously, emotionally. The slow system is based on conscious calculations, logical thinking, and requires more effort. Even during quarantine, many people seem to rely more on the fast system, even though the decisions made bu the slow one is needed here.

Cognitive biases

One of the main biases in thinking that can lead to such human behavior is the optimism bias. That is, thinking that a negative event is more likely to happen to others but not me. Such thinking creates the illusion of control that our lives depend on thus more than objectively it is.

Another example of cognitive bias which can be applied in our analysed situation is the effect of overconfidence. I.e. when a person subjectively assesses situations and considers that his or her subjective assessment of the situation is more accurate than a real or objective assessment. As a result, people may find that they understand what is going on better than it is actually is.

One more example – loss aversion. This bias is most valid for people who traveled when the pandemic had already spread to many countries. People are more likely not to lose $ 5 than to get $ 5, says Kahneman. People who have had planned trips still choose to travel despite the risk because they are more sensitive to losing than protecting themselves from a possible virus.

Of course, for some it was perhaps the only holiday of the year so skipping it would have been painful. The reluctance to suffer losses can even be explained evolutionary. An individual who values ​​loss more cautiously than opportunity has a higher chance of survival.

Risk perceptions are influenced by many of the biases that affect
event frequency estimation such as people’s tendency to overestimate rare events (and underestimate common ones). In our case contraction of the virus is quite common if you are not protecting yourself.

Misleading communication by media

In addition to the bias of optimism mentioned above, one could add a misperception of risk that was clearly visible at the very beginning of the epidemic. This was largely due to the misleading information about the risk of the virus at the beginning of the epidemic.

The danger of coronavirus was at first wrongly compared to the danger of the seasonal flu. And since many people have been exposed to the flu and recovered, the risk seemed small to them. It was said that it is dangerous only for the elderly and those who have a bouquet of chronic diseases. However, knowing the effects of the virus better, we have seen that it is more dangerous than the flu and young people also can not feel completely calm.


We tend to compare. Although Theodore Roosevelt once has said that Comparison is a thief of joy, comparisons can sometimes help you feel better. For example, if someone is worse than us, we can comfort ourselves that we are not so bad yet. However, in the face of a pandemic, such an approach can do a lot of damage.

When the virus was only in China and in isolated cases in other countries, it seemed to us that it was far away and would not reach us. When the virus hit Europe, we are comforted that it is not as bad for us as it is for Italians or Spanish. The comparison that we are our country is dealing better that others might make people don’t take the current situation as seriously as it should, which can lead to reckless action.

Social loafing

Social loafing is a well-known concept for those who are at least somewhat exposed to social psychology. Social loafing can generally be defined as less effort when you are in a group because all members of the group are pursuing a common goal.

A good example is a rope stretching competition. Let’s say there are 5 people commanding and you think you can try less because others try to the maximum. What if others think the same way? Research shows that social idleness usually stems from a person’s belief that his or her effort will not be as important.

My assumption about the effect of social loafing in this case stems from the fact that society is now a large group that can be said to be pursuing a common goal: to stop the spread of the virus. Because a person thinks others are social distancing, and if I don’t follow one alone, the effort of my one is still less weighty.

Unfortunately, many people have this attitude. We can see this from the news in media about visiting popular natural objects, which are visited in good weather by no less people than usual (in the absence of quarantine). People think that nothing will happen if you do not follow the instructions because you are the only one but others think similarly, resulting in a critical mass.


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan.

Karau, S. J., & Williams, K. D. (1993). Social loafing: A meta-analytic review and theoretical integration. Journal of personality and social psychology, 65(4), 681.

M. LaCour and T. Davis, Vaccine skepticism reflects basic cognitive differences in mortality-related event frequency estimation,