Governors, mayors, and public health officials are sounding the alarm about rising levels of Covid-19 across every part of the country. The disease is surging, the death toll is soaring, and it’s clear that some states need more restrictive measures to control the spread.
What continues to frustrate so many leaders is that nine months into this pandemic, science and data have painted a clear path for how to beat the virus and reduce transmission. But the disappointing and deadly truth is that in many cases, it’s difficult to get Americans to follow the rules.
Boosted by a president who celebrates breaking rules and deliberately defies science and time-tested norms of civility, millions of Americans have been flagrantly flouting simple requests to wear masks in public, to refrain from congregating in large groups, or to limit their unnecessary travel. With the rule-makers themselves publicly disregarding the recommendations of experts and scientists of their own administration, rule-breaking Americans have quickly followed.
As it happens, the US loves rule breakers; the ethos of breaking with tradition is in our country’s DNA. New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die,” Western states like Arizona famously celebrate rugged individualism, the country’s founders are revered as rebels who defied a demanding government, and even a reality TV star could be elected president.
But in a pandemic, what public health officials are pleading for is a little more conformity. Flattening the curve requires Americans to all take fairly uniform actions — wearing masks, not gathering — for the betterment of the whole of society. It isn’t a time to bristle at being “told what to do.” President-elect Joe Biden has already signaled that he intends, unlike President Trump, to follow the science and issue a national 100-day mask-wearing campaign. While we wait for the months-long rollout of a vaccine to hundreds of millions of Americans, people must fall in line with this and other public health recommendations if there’s to be any hope of beating the virus. But will they?
While it may seem unlikely that Biden and public health officials can really encourage many more Americans to follow rules, there are ways to bring Americans together to support conformity. This, in turn, could help get Americans through the last several months of the pandemic with tens of thousands of fewer lives lost.
It’s important to think carefully about the message, because there’s more than one type of conformity. The type we think about most often — self-focused conformity — describes actions taken to fit in with a group. (These can be conspicuous inactions, too, such as some Trump supporters refusing to wear masks.)
But my research with collaborator Matthew Wice, assistant professor of psychology at SUNY New Paltz, looks at others-focused conformity, what we call “benevolent conformity,” and shows how following norms or rules can benefit others.
In one study, we asked more than 300 participants to think back to a time when they saw someone conform to their group. Some participants were asked to think about an instance when someone conformed because they wanted others to like them. Others were asked to think about a time when someone conformed for others’ sake. We then asked all of our participants to report what they thought about this person whose public behavior differed from their privately held beliefs. Did this person have a strong moral character? Were they competent people? Were they kind and friendly?
While participants in our research scoffed at conformity when it was perceived as selfish, they respected and appreciated benevolent conformity, seeing it as courageous and praiseworthy. Our experiments showed that Americans found people who conform to protect others’ feelings or to maintain group harmony to be warmer, more competent, and more authentic.
This is a key lesson for Biden and for governors who seek to enforce conformity to help protect people from a deadly virus. They should emphasize that sometimes conformity takes courage. This point should be made loud and clear: In the battle against Covid-19, the courageous and commendable thing to do is to put other people first.
So when presented with the idea that following Covid-19 safety measures is “weak” or “un-American,” public health experts should flip this argument on its head: emphasize the benefits of people’s helpful actions. Wherever possible, leaders must employ the benevolent conformity Americans seem to gravitate toward and respect.
Emphasizing a strong sense of shared identity can remind Americans that the real reason for adhering to safety measures is not just to fit in, but also to protect the group to which they belong. When adhering to simple safety measures can save tens of thousands of American lives, wearing a mask is not an act of blind obedience, it is an act of patriotism. As vaccines begin to be deployed (with vaccine hesitancy still high) and the pandemic reaching new heights, this kind of messaging will be increasingly urgent to get us back on track.
Our research makes one thing clear: Americans love rule breakers, but they also hold a special place in their heart for benevolent, other-focused rule followers. If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that sometimes, we need to conform for others’ sake.
Shai Davidai is assistant professor in the management division of Columbia Business School with expertise in the psychology of judgment and decision-making, economic inequality and social mobility, social comparisons, and zero-sum thinking. A social psychologist, his research examines people’s everyday judgments of themselves, other people, and society as a whole.