Crowd control is a fascinating topic. The global pandemic has offered widespread examples of initiatives designed to encourage community compliance, cracking open the question what motivates people to comply? New research from the psychology department at Royal Holloway, University of London (my alma mater!) in conjunction with University College London has revealed behaviour traits associated with adherence to lockdown restrictions.

In a study of 442 participants, research revealed individual responses to abrupt national lockdowns in the UK depended on personal attitudes towards reward and gratification. People with a preference for immediate gratification struggled to adapt to sudden external changes. Researchers identified those who violated national guidelines and adhered less to social distancing restrictions did so because they found it hard to rapidly pivot their behaviour.

The conclusion of the study highlights an important psychological nuance. Speedy behaviour modification feels incredibly painful, especially when promised rewards appear distant and inadequate. Although compliance with lockdown restrictions was initially deemed a personal choice, adherence (or violation) is more likely to be influenced by personal cognitive characteristics. In simple terms, if you are the kind of person who prefers immediate rewards, you are slower than others to adapt to change in your surroundings. You also find it more difficult to adjust your behaviour to the latest guidance. This is not a question of willingness, but rather capability.

This study clearly defines the difference between cognitive characteristics (brain-based processes which control and regulate behaviour) and choice (behavioural process to reach a decision, having judged the merits of multiple options). But it does not take into account mounting pressure to comply with restrictions when lockdown extends. Unrelenting pressure has the unfortunate consequence of narrowing perception, so choice appears limited.

Why does this happen? The human response to pressure is known as the stress mindset. Perhaps yours is positive, meaning you view unexpected challenges as an opportunity to sharpen your focus, strengthen your motivation and gain new learning. You are adept at devising resourceful coping strategies and embracing new perspectives. On the other hand, if you find stress unpleasant, debilitating and ultimately futile, your negative response means you avoid it wherever possible. When forced into a corner, you shut down. You start saying: “Well, I don’t really have a choice.”

This erosion of choice undermines freewill. Without true consent, pressure becomes coercive and sounds like spin. The #MeToo movement gained momentum when story after abusive story surfaced, detailing the gradual, calculated and deliberate process powerful perpetrators use to groom their victims. With almost imperceptible boundary shifts each time, offenders employ a manipulative form of behaviour modification to furtively condition their target’s responses. Where covert messages overpower the apparent narrative, spin is winning.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Susan Pinker referenced a new study by Lucas Parra, professor of biomedical engineering at City College of New York. When people listen to the same story (each person alone in their own home), their heart rates rise and fall in unison. Parra explains: “It’s the story that drives the heart. There’s an explicit link between people’s heart rates and a narrative. It’s not the interaction between people but the story itself that does the trick.”

Consider those stories currently filling your world. If the pressure is rising and your heart seeks calm, try these options:

  • Slow the spin with a daily meditation practice, try The Mindful Minute with Meryl Arnett
  • Refresh your perspective on time with Daniel Rubin’s TED talk
  • Open yourself to historical research and observe past patterns because Winston Churchill said: “The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.”

The happy news? There is no obligation to accept the squeeze of pressure for compliance. Our website contains more details if you need help realigning yourself or your team for post-lockdown success. In the meantime, encourage more positivity into your world by associating with like minds who honour your pace, your patterns and your preferences!