Why do some people find it harder to observe social distancing measures than others? Professor Patricia Riddell from Psychology discusses how our beliefs and experiences shape our responses in a new post for The Conversation.

You may have noticed that some people have responded very differently to new rules on lockdown and social distancing. Some seem appalled. Other reassured. What might account for these differences?

It is easy to think that we are all reacting to the same events in the world and so should have similar responses to them. But that’s not quite what happens in our brains. We do not have the capacity to capture all the information that is coming through our senses – what we see, hear and feel. Instead, we pay attention to the information that is most relevant to us and use it to create an interpretation of what is happening in the world. In other words, we tell ourselves a story about what is happening and then react to our story.

This provides some indication of why individuals react so differently to the same events. We each have different experiences and so are more likely to attend to different parts of the event. The bits we attend to, when put together, will make up a different story which will then drive our response to the situation.

Knowing that we are constructing our beliefs about the world based on our past experience, we can begin to think about what differences there might be which would cause people to interpret recent events so differently. Here are some ways that this might happen.

1. Moving towards or approaching good outcomes versus moving away from or avoiding bad outcomes

One of the main functions of our brain is to notice opportunities that bring reward and pitfalls that might be damaging to us both physically and mentally. We then decide what to based on of the balance in our perception of possible rewards and punishments. But individuals weight rewards and punishments differently. At the extremes, for some people the bright shiny opportunity is almost all that they see, and they do not notice the potential pitfalls. For others, the pitfalls are so apparent that any potential reward is not noticed at all.

Consider how each of these groups might hear a government message about the lockdown. The group that see only reward will notice the opportunity to get out into the country now that their work is closed and the sun is shining. They will not notice the pitfalls of the potential damage to their own or other people’s health. The group that see the pitfalls will be anxious about the possibility of catching COVID-19 and will want to protect themselves and their families by staying at home.

2. Introverts and extroverts

It is easy to see that, if you are not a people person, the idea of staying at home with your loved ones and not having to be sociable will actually be a relief. But to the extrovert this is a real trial, since they are cut off from one of their main sources of pleasure. While video calls or chat rooms might help to alleviate the problem, there will always be a craving for social contact.

3. People with a purpose versus people with time on their hands

For some people, work has just moved online and they are as busy as ever – if not busier. For others, their routine has been completely removed with nothing to replace it. It will be much easier for those who are busy and learning to manage their work in new ways to adhere to the new rules than those whose routine has been removed, who will be looking for new ways to fill their time.

4. People who are tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity versus those who are intolerant

Some people need certainty and like to feel as if they have some control over events, while others are happy to react to events and even find the prospect of a big shake-up exciting, since it brings new opportunities. At the extremes, there will be very different stories told about current messages on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Those who are intolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity will be looking for a clear and unambiguous message that communicates the right thing to do. They will find the different messages about whether it is safe to go out or not very unsettling and will be likely to err on the side of caution.

Those who are tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity might not even hear the mixed messages since they will be looking for the opportunities in the situation – what can I do now that was not possible before? They will revel in the change and look for ways to put it to use in their business, in family life or in social life. You will find them arranging play dates for their children by video call, running remote choirs and moving all of their business online.

What can we do differently?

There are many ways to react in this time of uncharted change. We will each make up our own story to fit our experience to date. No story is wholly right or wrong – and the way individuals react to the situation is only the result of their experience. But they will find it very hard to understand each other.

To help us all work together, remember that you have created your own reality and so has every other person you meet. Be willing to be curious about their story and to reflect on why this might be different to yours. Better still, try considering what you really know about the current situation and use this information to create several different stories. You might begin to realise that they are all just one of many possible outcomes. Pick one that predicts a better, but realistic, future for you. It might help you manage in this uncertain time.

This post first appeared on The Conversation, 25 March 2020. Patricia Riddell is Professor of Applied Neuroscience at the University of Reading. She contributes to teaching and research both in the School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences and at Henley Business School.  One of Patricia’s main interests is in the ways in which neuroscience can be applied in the real world, supporting and extending our understanding of human behaviour. This includes considering how understanding the ways in which the brain processes information can be used to design interventions to change people’s behaviour for the better.