Press Release: Research team studies French population resistance to Covid-19 containment policies

Monday, March 30, 2020 - Toulouse. Researchers from the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, Science Po Paris and the University of York studied the French population during the 2020 March containment policies. Their study suggests that older people and women are more likely to adhere, whilst extroverts, and supporters of the far right and far left, may be more likely to rebel. As Covid-19 restrictions tighten around the world, their findings provide insights into the potential public response and can help to ensure that health measures are effectively targeted.

The infection and mortality rate of COVID-19 have forced governments to implement a wave of public health measures, ranging from simple hygienic rules about handwashing or handshakes to social distancing or lockdowns. “Enforcing a lockdown is an enormous challenge especially for democratic societies,” says Michael Becher, a political scientist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse. “If the current restrictions being adopted by governments around the world are to be successful, voluntary cooperation by citizens is essential.”

As the virus spread, the French government provided a number of recommendations for its citizens, which gradually intensified in severity until a lockdown was imposed on March 17. Despite grave concerns for public health, instances of public disobedience were frequently presented in the media, leading government officials to repeatedly urge the public to abide by the measures.

Together with Sylvain Brouard (Sciences Po) and Pavlos Vasilopoulos (University of York), Michael Becher wanted to investigate the individual responses of French citizens to COVID-19 health recommendations by comparing their sociodemographic and psychological characteristics.

Drawing on data previously collected for the French National Election Study (ENEF), a representative sample of 1,010 participants from ENEF panel were again surveyed on March 16-17. They were asked whether they had changed daily behaviors, including: “Washing your hands”; “Coughing or sneezing into your elbow or a handkerchief”; “Shaking hands or kissing”; “Keeping one meter from other people outside your home”; “Reduced trips”; “Avoiding crowded places”; “Meeting friends”.

The findings show that older people and women were more likely to adhere to the public health recommendations. “Given that the risk of dying from COVID-19 increases with age, one would expect older people to be more likely to comply with measures to stop the spread of the virus,” says Michael, adding that compliance may also be less likely among the young because they have more active social lives.

The researchers also expected education to play a role. Previous research has shown that educated people are more likely to be informed about current affairs. They may consequently be more aware of the measures, their targets, as well as the threat posed by COVID-19. However, this French study found no link between education levels and compliance with Covid-19 health policy. This may suggest that lack of information is not a main driver of non-compliance in the context of intensive government and media campaigns on the issue.

The researchers’ findings also suggest that personality matters. Conscientious individuals, who tend to be duty-bound, hard-working, and have a high sense of obligation, were more likely to abide with the public health measures.

Extroverts, on the other hand, were more likely to rebel. “Extroverted individuals may find it harder to disrupt sociability by complying with isolating measures, such as avoiding public gatherings or meeting with friends,” says Michael. He added that one attractives feature of their data is that respondent’s personality traits were measured three years ahead of the current crisis, which reduces the concern that the correlation simply reflects reverse causality.

Past research has shown that individuals who place themselves in ideological extremes tend to be both more distrusting of the state and its powers as well as more prone to endorsing conspiracy theories. Accordingly, the researchers found that those who identify as far left or far right were less likely to comply with health policy on COVID-19.

This study is currently under peer-review and Michael and his colleagues insist that their results be interpreted with caution. “The observational nature of our data prevents us from drawing causal conclusions, and age or personality traits are not directly amenable to policy interventions,” they write. “However, our results provide insights into the individual foundations of compliance that can provide the basis for policymakers to evaluate the effectiveness of their measures.”

The researchers suggest that their work could be developed by adding behavioral measures of compliance and conducting future experiments on the effect of monitoring and social pressure. In fact, they are conducing follow up work to address some of these issues and to cover other countries (e.g., Germany and the UK).

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