By Mimi McNally – A’ Level Psychology Teacher and Centre Coordinator for EPQ, HPQ and UCAS

It is not just about ‘Hands, Face, Space’, it is ‘Hearts and Minds’ too that Boris Johnson is desperately trying to secure as the COVID-19 pandemic rolls inexorably on.

But he is unlikely to succeed without a crash course in Social Psychology from Westminster’s Behavioural Insights Team. This ‘Nudge Unit’, as it is affectionately called, has been playing a powerful role behind the scenes to inform the debate over policy and messaging by researching social behaviours and attitudes that are instrumental in keeping the population safe. And they, like Claremont’s A Level Psychology students, are watching an extraordinary social experiment playing out in our daily lives and hoping to learn how well behavioural change and subtle social influence can help control the virus, particularly while we await the arrival of a vaccine.

Humans are a highly social species. Social distancing goes against our every instinct to meet, touch and share experiences. Conformity with social distancing therefore challenges our very nature, so COVID policies need to be motivational if they are to prove effective. Compliant individuals will adhere to the rules only when they know they are being watched – ‘masking up’ in shops and social distancing in queues. But unless people can be persuaded to internalise the COVID messaging as their ‘truth’ on a deeper level, I believe they are less likely to wash hands or avoid mixing in large social groups in private. The interim stage between compliance and internalisation is identification – a temporary internalisation of the social distancing message, applied to specific situations. For example, some people will want to shield Granny and won’t risk getting on a plane, but when an invite arrives for that big birthday celebration they consider attending, as somehow the risk doesn’t seem so great.

So how does Boris win us over without declaring an indefinite lockdown or deploying a sufficiently sized police force to enforce the rules? Well, there are several things he can do. Firstly, he can keep the messaging both optimistic and empowering – the “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” was so positive it made us all feel like superheroes back in the Spring, and we were keen to conform and stay indoors. We were then told to “Eat Out to Help Out”. A generous furlough scheme helped safeguard jobs and whilst those that could, were encouraged to avoid unnecessary travel, working from home soon became the new norm. Even if ratting on your neighbour has become commonplace in Germany, neighbourly denunciations have also been actively discouraged in Britain. Secondly, Boris knows he needs to keep the messaging simple – “Rule of 6” and “Hands, Face, Space” trip off the tongue easily, even if the 3-tier regulations have left many people, including Parliamentarians, scratching their heads at times. The final trick will be harder to pull off though, and that is for the government to ‘lead from the front and keep us united’. Public awareness of MPs and advisors breaking the rules to travel home to Scotland or visit the optician in Barnard Castle, has prompted a cynicism about the legitimacy of civil restrictions – rule-breaking by the very people making the rules is never a good look.

Social conformity levels are always much higher in populations that share a strong group identity; however, the fragmented policy approaches of the devolved national assemblies’ responses to COVID and the 3-tier system imposed across England has threatened a UK-wide national identity already maimed by Brexit. Then, as mistrust and scepticism have the potential to spread through the nation like the very virus we are battling, it will become increasingly hard to believe we really are all ‘in this together’.

Of course all of this provides a wonderful backdrop for Psychology lessons as we explore the factors driving Social Influence, Conformity, Obedience and Social Change. Our need to belong is as strong as our need to be right, so Boris is wise to appeal to both our hearts and our minds to get us to adhere to the rules. We would invite Boris to join us in class if the Nudge Unit is too busy to keep him up to speed, but sadly due to the latest COVID restrictions, it looks like he’ll have to wait a while.