Pressure to conform to social norms may explain risky COVID-19 decisions

A trip to Disney World reveals how quickly “normal” can change

a crowd at Disney World

Throngs of visitors have been flocking to Disney World in Florida. Despite rising COVID-19 cases nationwide, few people wear masks, even in crowded settings, such as along this street in Magic Kingdom.

Tim Brown/iStock Editorial/Getty Images Plus

The pandemic has entered a murky stage, and social norms are quickly shifting, something I’ve thought a lot about lately. Many people are testing at home, or not at all. Here in Vermont, where I live, you can pick up a type of PCR test that can be taken at home. But state officials both here and elsewhere are no longer carefully monitoring the results of these tests, which means that the actual spread of coronavirus in the U.S. population remains unclear (SN: 4/22/22). 

For a few weeks, rumors of a stealth COVID-19 wave have been circulating both in the media and on my Twitter feed. Now cases and hospitalizations are rising, as are the levels of coronavirus in wastewater. That suggests that more cases, and ultimately deaths, could follow. 

Even with rising caseloads and a vaccination rate that has flatlined at about 66 percent of the eligible population, the American public has largely begun to move on from the COVID-19 crisis. People are shedding their masks, eating out, attending concerts, traveling to far-flung locations, having large, indoor weddings and doing all the social things that people tend to do when left to their own devices.

The 2,600-person White House Correspondents’ Association dinner late last month is a case in point. Just as host Trevor Noah prophesied, many of those in attendance have since tested positive for COVID-19, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and reporters from NBC, ABC, the Washington Post, Politico and other media outlets. And those who almost certainly knew better — cue White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Ashish Jha — nonetheless made an appearance.

Myriad quirks related to human behavior undoubtedly underpin these arguably poor choices. The Decision Lab website has a list of the biases and mental shortcuts people use to make decisions. The one that caught my eye is social norms. This particular quirk outlines what behaviors people deem appropriate in a given situation. 

I started thinking about social norms while writing a feature on how to get people in the United States to eat less meat when the practice is so, well, normal (SN: 5/11/22). Social norms, my research informed me, vary with the group one is hanging out with and one’s environs. “We rapidly switch our perspective depending on the context of the situation we find ourselves in,” writes marketing expert John Laurence on the Decision Lab site.

I might have found this idea of rapid switching suspect had I not recently experienced the phenomenon. My husband’s Disney-phile brother and his wife had been planning a family reunion in Disney World in Florida since the start of the pandemic. And I, a curmudgeonly sort not prone to feeling the magic, long ago agreed to go on the condition that other people do all the planning. And so it was, after multiple COVID-related postponements, that my kids, my husband and I landed in Orlando on a blisteringly hot April day. 

Disney normal, I soon learned, bore little resemblance to Vermont normal. This was obvious immediately from people’s attire. All around me parents and kids dressed in coordinated outfits and matching Mickey Mouse ears. (Apologies to my kids — your mom missed the fashion memo.) 

Social norms almost certainly arose to foster cohesion among our earliest ancestors, who needed solidarity to hunt large prey, share limited resources and ward off predators and enemy tribes. In-group norms also provide humans with a sense of belonging, which research suggests is vital for our overall health. A meta-analysis of more than 3.4 million people followed for an average of seven years showed that the likelihood of dying during the study period increased by 26 percent for participants who reported feeling alone (SN: 3/29/20). 

Not surprisingly, then, one of the strongest drivers of human behavior is to seek out belonging. At Disney, that quest means blocking out the reality that exists just outside the fiefdom. Wars, climate crises, political fighting and the like have no place within those magical walls. Nor do reminders of a global health crisis that, according to the latest World Health Organization estimates, has thus far killed nearly 15 million people worldwide. 

Within Disney’s walls, throngs of mostly maskless tourists packed onto iconic rides and into restaurants. When halfway through our trip, a Florida judge ruled that masks could not be mandated on public transit, nary a mask was to be seen on buses shuttling people to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center. And everywhere, all the time, people seemed to be coughing, sniffling or blowing their noses. 

As a science reporter covering COVID-19, I certainly knew that I should keep my mask on. And yet, my resolve soon faltered. My kids pointed out that no one else was masking, not even my typically rule-following relatives. Donning my mask meant confessing that I was not reveling in the sparkle and glitz and magic and making all too obvious to my beloved extended family that I did not, in fact, belong. I kept my face covering in my pocket.  

Humans’ tendency toward conformity is not all bad. In a now classic study from the 1980s, researchers investigated how to reduce water consumption in drought-prone California. Signs at the University of California, Santa Cruz asking students to turn off the shower while soaping up led to only 6 percent compliance. So researchers recruited male students to serve as norm-setting role models. These role models would hang out in the communal shower until they heard another student come in, and then soap up with the water off. When one role model soaped with the shower off, roughly half of the unwitting students also began turning off their faucets at soaping time. Compliance jumped to 67 percent when two role models followed the sign.

But conformity can also distort how we make decisions. For instance, in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic was still new, researchers asked 23,000 people in Mexico to predict how a fictional woman named Mariana would decide whether or not to attend a birthday party. Most participants believed Mariana should not attend. But when they read a sentence suggesting her friends would attend or that others approved of the party, their predictions that Mariana would also go increased by 25 percent, researchers reported in PLOS ONE

My decision to conform to Disney normal ended predictably — with a positive COVID-19 test. After weeks of coughing and sleepless nights, though, my frustration is less directed at myself than at political leaders who so blithely ignore both epidemiology and human behavior research and tell us to live like it’s 2019. It’s not. Nor is it 2020 or 2021. It’s the murky year known as 2022. And the rules of behavior that bolster our social norms — such as role models who refrain from large, indoor, unmasked gatherings, and leaders who uphold mask mandates on public transit to protect the most vulnerable — should reflect this liminal space. 

Sujata Gupta is the social sciences writer and is based in Burlington, Vt.

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