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Covid rebels break the rules for a ‘mini thrill’

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New study, co-led by a UEL academic, will guide public health messages aimed at non-compliers

People break Covid-19 rules not because they are 'fed up' with them, which is the popular idea in the media, but rather in the moment to provide a mini thrill, according to a psychology professor at the University of East London.

Professor Mark McDermott of the School of Psychology at the University of East London joined forces with Dr Kathryn Lafreniere of the University of Windsor in Canada to conduct an online survey with 666 respondents in Ontario. 

The self-report data in the survey addressed health belief model variables, rebelliousness, demographics, and compliance with Covid-19 public health behaviours – including mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing. 

Based on the findings, non-compliance has more to do with social identity as a ‘non-conformer’ then being truly disaffected with the rules.

Professors McDermott and Lafreniere will present their findings in a presentation titled ‘Health behaviour non-compliance as `playful’ oppositionalism and implications for public health strategy’ at the 2020 MindTech Symposium on Thursday (December 3). 

Professor McDermott said the study found that, ”It is not the disaffected `reactive’ form of rebelliousness that predicts non-compliance with mask-wearing, social distancing, and hand washing. It is the `proactive’, excitement-seeking, breaking-rules- in-the-moment-for-`fun’ type of rebelliousness that emerged in statistical regression analysis as an independent predictor, along notably with `conservative’, rather than liberal, political orientation.” 

Their recommendations include that “public health messages need to be constructed, which nudge playful ‘CV19 rebels’ toward compliance.” 

Professors McDermott and Lafreniere suggest providing playful oppositional imagery on face masks, which would encourage non-compliers to wear them. Such masks would signal the wearer's rebellious social identity, but without putting themselves or others at risk.

“Those who proactively rebel against Covid rules can be encouraged to `get their kicks’ in other ways,“ Professor McDermott added.

Professor Aneta Tunariu, dean of the School of Psychology, said, ”The School has been shaped by the strength of our links globally. We applaud Dr McDermott for his work with Dr Kathryn Lafreniere of the University of Windsor in Canada on this survey, which could have real-world health implications by steering public health messaging aimed at bringing on board non-compliers across the globe during the pandemic.

“The potential reach of the survey recommendations highlights the impact of the world-class, future-focused research by Professor McDermott and others within the School.“