Social Distance

Motivating Social Distancing During a Pandemic

Oct. 28, 2022

  • Profile Picture of Crystal Reeck


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some countries had more success stopping the spread than others. What type of public health messaging best motivates people to abide by social distancing rules?

Crystal Reeck finds that autonomy supported messaging, which promotes people’s efficacy to shape outcomes, reduces people’s feeling of defiance. Controlling messaging, which uses guilt or shame to motivate people, increases feelings of defiance. People who reported more autonomous motivation were more likely to social distance, while those who reported more controlling motivation were less likely to abide by the restrictions put in place.

Leaders attempting to influence people’s behavior should seek to promote feelings of efficacy rather than guilt or shame. Public leaders can use this information not only for future public health emergencies, but also for other purposes such as voter registration campaigns.