Public Compliance and the formation of a New Norm

  I keep thinking about the policies imposed by the officials and how people responded to it during the pandemic – Londoners were initially supportive of the measures taken, but many began circumventing them as the plague dragged on. This strikes me as painfully relevant to the situations in many states where the governments struggled to contain a second, third, or forth wave. Three factors, I have concluded from the book, are at play here:

  • Seriousness of the pandemic
  • Intensity of the response
  • Public awareness

  Below, I have plotted the relations between these three factors:

  We can logically take it a priori that the intensity of the response will positively correlate with the seriousness of the plague (in Defoe’s case, the roster). Public awareness, as Londoners in his book demonstrated, dwindled as the pandemic continued throughout the year – and as such people began finding loopholes in the rules to not confine themselves to their houses. People began to doubt: are we over-reacting to this? Below is a Twitter screenshot of a relevant sentiment observed during our very own COVID-19:

Twitter @PaulEWalsh

  The notion of a “new normal” particularly interests me. In studying how societal norms form in response to external monitoring (i.e., government policies to tackle the plague), Ostrom (2000) conducted group experiments where she compared the evolution of societal norms under different conditions of 1) organic (i.e., no rules), 2) weak external monitoring (i.e., rules exist but aren’t really enforced), and 3) strong external monitoring (i.e., rules exist and are enforced stringently). I have summarized a chart of her findings below:

  For me, Defoe’s account of Londoner’s sentiment seems to correspond to the “weak external monitoring/sanctioning” mechanism in the experiment. In Ostrom’s research, she found that this scenario contains the worst outcome of all: norms of compliance don’t develop, and nor does cooperation between members of the group mature. In addition to this model of (lack of) norms, the public awareness of following measures and aversion towards the plague fatigued as the story progressed, towards the end when rumors of plague dying down inspired people to almost celebrate. This, to me, is especially relevant to the current situation and the sense of “limbo” as most states in the world move towards the near-total-control of the COVID-19 pandemic. Should the next wave arise, will people have the capacity to go into lockdown again and fight the next wave as we did the first wave?

Ostrom, E. (2000). Collective Action and the Evolution of Social Norms. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 14(3), 137–158.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.