ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (7): 1612-1625.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01612

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Social distancing during a respiratory disease pandemic

SUN Shiyue(), ZHANG Yu   

  1. Department of Psychology, Beijing Forestry University, Beijing 100083, China
  • Received:2021-08-19 Online:2022-07-15 Published:2022-05-17
  • Contact: SUN Shiyue


Since the COVID-19 outbreak, social distancing in epidemic or pandemic contexts has become an emerging issue of concern. Both the public’s high level of adherence to social restrictions and its proactive social distancing behaviors are instrumental in containing respiratory infectious disease outbreaks. However, people’s engagement in social distancing fluctuates throughout a pandemic, and it can change based on pandemic severity, pandemic or disease-related perceptions and emotional responses, social and cultural backgrounds, and individual differences in psychological traits. First, regarding pandemic severity, the level of severity and the public’s reported social distancing behaviors are not simply linearly correlated and may be moderated by the time course. Moreover, social distancing adherence varies across geographical regions. Among people from the initial epicenter of the pandemic, social distancing behaviors seem to be more proactive and persistent. Second, social distancing is influenced by factors related to cognition and emotion such as knowledge of the pandemic, perceived susceptibility to and severity of the disease, belief in the effectiveness of social distancing practices, and subjective norms regarding pandemics. There is also evidence that negative emotions such as fear and concern significantly predict social distancing. Third, socio-cultural factors, such as the degree of uncertainty avoidance and individualistic-collectivist values, may have direct or indirect influences on the public’s psychological reaction and social distancing behaviors during the pandemic. Finally, individual differences in psychological traits affect social distancing behavior. Recent studies have shown that people who have a higher level of self-control or need for cognition better adhere to social distancing. The feeling of self-efficacy is also associated with greater engagement in social distancing, suggesting that certain cognitive processes requiring individual efforts to make decisions are involved in social distancing. There is also evidence that emotional or motivational traits, including health risk avoidance tendency, aversion sensitivity, and pro-social motivation, as well as social cognition such as trust in science and in government or authority institutions, can influence social distancing. Additionally, social distancing and time course patterns are also related to and moderated by the level of interpersonal trust.
The theory of planned behavior (TPB), the protection motivation theory (PMT), and the theory of the behavioral immune system (BIS) were discussed to explain the correlates and determinants of social distancing during the pandemic. First, the TPB, PMT, and BIS all highlight the influence of feelings and reactions to threat in determining the behavioral response. Both the TPB and PMT emphasize the conscious perception and deliberate computation of behavioral situations, costs, outcomes, and consequent reactions of others, which are highly cognitively demanding. Conversely, the theory of BIS focuses on perceptual and behavioral changes at an automatic level under the threat of infectious diseases. Therefore, threat management mechanisms in social distancing are supported by the three theories at both the levels of automation and conscious processing. Second, the coping assessment proposed by PMT and perceptual behavioral control emphasized by the TPB both propose a role of self-efficacy in social distancing behaviors. Primary evidence has shown that a sense of self-efficacy is another major source of behavioral compliance, and that it could moderate the effect of fear, suggesting that this independent mechanism could facilitate social distancing without fear. Lastly, the subjective norms construct in the TPB has the advantage of explaining the influence of social background and factors such as pro-social motivation and social trust. Based on previous findings and the social identity theory, we propose that an additional mechanism regarding social identity could influence social distancing behavior.
The role of fear or threat attitudes in social distancing during a pandemic is supported by ample empirical evidence. However, further investigations should be conducted to clarify the relationship between the emotional and cognitive processes underlying social distancing behavioral decisions, as well as the interaction between social and cultural backgrounds and individual psychological traits. Future research should also strengthen theory-driven studies on the determinants of social distancing. To summarize both rational and irrational processes and group and individual perspectives, it is necessary to construct a dual-system model, such as one that integrates social identity theory and the theory of planned behavior. Furthermore, most previous studies on social distancing relied on self-reports of behavior and were cross-sectional in design. Therefore, it is important to conduct behavioral research with an experimental design or longitudinal surveys to further explore the causal relationships among the influencing factors and to confirm the underlying mechanisms of social distancing behaviors in the context of epidemics or pandemics.

Key words: respiratory infectious disease, pandemic/epidemic, social distancing, psychological traits

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