Are we just fed up?
The idea that people won't follow COVID rules because they're fed up with them is a popular one in the media, but it isn't one that the government needs to worry about too much. In research we carried out on non-adherence to COVID rules (which is currently being prepared for publication, and so is yet to be reviewed by other scientists), dissatisfaction didn't seem to be a major problem.
Rather, we found that breaking COVID rules was more often about something else entirely: the enjoyment of rebellion. For some, there's a little thrill that comes with being playfully oppositional. Defying COVID restrictions for these people produces a pleasurable feeling that reinforces their rule-breaking behaviour, making them more likely to repeat it.
In our study - which we conducted in Ontario, Canada - 666 adults responded online to a number of questions about health beliefs, rebelliousness, demographic factors and compliance with three COVID-related public health behaviours: mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing.
Our results suggest that noncompliance across all three preventative behaviours had more to do with someone's social identity as a "nonconformer" than being truly disaffected by the rules. Specifically, we found that participants' rebelliousness and noncompliance wasn’t born out of frustration. Rather, it was a proactive, excitement-seeking, breaking-rules-in-the-moment-for-fun type of rebelliousness that emerged as a significant predictor of nonconformity.
These findings, which are similar to those of earlier research, are important because they could have implications for the way in which public health messages need to be constructed. Evidence suggests that about one in ten people report not complying or not wanting to comply with COVID requirements. That's a lot of people when scaled up to a country's population. Messages that seek to drive good health behaviour need to target this subgroup.
How to reach COVID rebels
Sometimes, with those who feel very rebellious, messages that involve reverse psychology can be effective: telling people to do the opposite of what they are supposed to can shine a light on the absurdity of their nonconformity. Being humorous can also appeal to those of an oppositional disposition.
Messages or tactics that nudge COVID rebels towards compliance should be used. With masks, for example, having playful nonconformist imagery on face coverings might encourage the noncompliant person to wear them, since such masks clearly signal the wearer's rebellious social identity, but without putting themselves or others at risk.
These sorts of nonconformist masks are already available, and it's also possible for people to design their own masks online. There could, though, be more of a push towards getting people to consider personalised masks. Official guidance in the UK tends to promote wearing plain, surgical masks over other types and designs.