UP-led behavioural study explores patterns of compliance to COVID-19 regulations

A study led by researchers at the University of Pretoria (UP) has found that people who believe that others are complying with COVID-19 regulations are more likely to comply as well.

Together with a team of researchers in South Africa and France, Dr Nicky Nicholls and Dr Eleni Yitbarek of UP’s Department of Economics studied beliefs and behavioural preferences as predictors of compliance with regulations aimed at reducing the transmission of COVID-19 in South Africa.

The researchers observed a positive link between people’s beliefs about the compliance of others and their own compliance. However, they found that a higher perceived risk of infection was not associated with greater compliance.

“We found that people who believe that others in their area are complying with lockdown regulations are more likely to comply with the regulations themselves,” Dr Nicholls says. “Yet, how likely people think they are of contracting COVID-19 doesn’t seem to predict how likely they are to adopt preventive measures (such as mask wearing or social distancing) or comply with lockdown regulations.”

With no immediate prospects of eradicating the virus, encouraging people to adopt preventive behaviours – such as social distancing, regular handwashing, wearing masks and observing lockdown regulations – has been the central focus of public health policies. For this reason, investigating ways to improve compliance with recommended and required behaviours is important for informed policymaking. 

The team also found that people who are more patient or altruistic showed greater compliance with measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. This is in line with findings in other countries where researchers have established that altruism increases preventive health behaviours in the context of communicable diseases.

“To help less patient people to cooperate in reducing the spread of disease, we need to do all we can to make behaviours that reduce spread easy to adopt,” Dr Nicolls says. “For COVID-19, this would include things like making masks inexpensive and easy to access, and having sanitisers readily available in public places. We also need to emphasise how big the benefits of adopting these behaviours can be, both in the short term (you’re less likely to get sick) and in the long term (we’ll have fewer cases to overwhelm the healthcare system).

“Because people’s concern for others predicts behaviour, we can also highlight the importance of caring for others in these situations; this includes thinking about the risk to more vulnerable South Africans. And given that beliefs about the behaviour of others predict our own behaviour, highlighting good behaviour – the adoption of preventive measures – in others might encourage people to increase their own compliance.”

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Dr Nicky Nicholls and Dr Eleni Yitbarek

March 22, 2022

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  • Dr Nicky Nicholls
    Dr Nicky Nicholls has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Economics at the University of Pretoria (UP) since 2017. She studied Psychology (MA) at Stellenbosch University, and Economics at the University of the Witwatersrand (MCom) and UP (PhD).
    Dr Nicholls enjoys collaborating with and learning from colleagues in the Department of Economics. “The department gives me the freedom to focus on investigating research questions that are both interesting and important,” she says.

    She uses surveys and economic experiments to better understand how people make decisions in different contexts. Her research has considered, among other topics, race and gender bias; trust in social media; belief updating; and factors influencing the willingness to give.

    In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Nicholls has been involved in various research projects that investigated predictors of people’s willingness to adopt behaviours that reduce the spread of COVID-19, students’ adjustment to online learning and people’s willingness to contribute to public funds.

    Her advice to school learners or undergraduates who are interested in her field is to read as much as they can. “The more you understand what other people are contributing to this field, the more you will be able to see where you can make a difference.”
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  • Dr Eleni Yitbarek
    Dr Eleni Yitbarek is a senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria and a junior fellow at the Pan-African Scientific Research Council. She obtained her PhD in Development Economics from Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

    Dr Yitbarek has a strong background in quantitative analysis, with extensive experience in designing and analysing household survey data for poverty and inequality analyses.
    Her interest is primarily in economic development, especially the role that social and economic policies play in it. Dr Yitbarek is particularly interested in answering these central questions, among others: why do some people remain poor while others become prosperous; and what drives social mobility in developing countries?

    She collaborates widely with international development organisations such as the World Bank, the Netherlands Development Organisation (SNV), European Investment Bank, Global Development Network, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the African Climate Policy Centre.

    In her relatively young academic career, Dr Yitbarek is contributing to applied research in poverty dynamics, the socioeconomic effects of idiosyncratic and transient shocks, and gender-based social mobility in the African context.

    She has published papers in international peer-reviewed journals such as Economics Letters, Contemporary Economic Policy, Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, Journal of Development Effectiveness and African Development Review.

    Dr Yitbarek hopes her research will make a significant and concrete contribution towards informed policymaking that aims to improve the lives of the poor.
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