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Many people have failed to understand the importance of social distancing in slowing the spread of the virus. Neil Hall/EPA

Coronavirus: what makes some people act selfishly while others are more responsible?

Many were horrified to see huge numbers of people ignoring government advice in the UK recently, enjoying a weekend in the sunshine swarming markets, city parks, national parks and beaches.

The advance of COVID-19 has triggered a broad-scale mission of “responsibilisation”. This means that political leaders, health experts and even celebrities, neighbours and loved ones have called upon us all to act responsibly in order to slow the spread of the virus, and to minimise the damaging effects of the pandemic. And while many people did follow advice and stay at home, those who did not were enough to cause alarm, and now prime minister Boris Johnson has put Britain in lockdown.

The reckless and selfish behaviour witnessed around the world from Florida to Hong Kong has drawn much ire. Why do some people dodge their responsibility in these difficult times? And should we rely on individuals making responsible choices to begin with?

I am a researcher of consumer responsibilisation, which means I study how consumers come to accept – or reject – personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions. For example, my work looks at how culturally prevalent views on, and emotional reactions to, social problems affect consumer responsibilisation – as well as how consumers can be motivated to accept responsibility. This work has inspired me to consider current developments in COVID-19 from this particular vantage point.

In Denmark, where I live, the queen delivered a heartfelt appeal to the nation, stressing that breaking the chain of infection requires that “we all behave sensibly”, and lamenting those who continue to behave irresponsibly. It was the first such crisis address since the end of the second world war. Like many others, Queen Margarethe is troubled by the reckless and inconsiderate actions of some.

Irresponsible behaviour

Partying, stock-piling essentials, panic buying and “escaping” to rural areas have all been criticised in news outlets and social media. These examples reveal some of the challenges the government has faced in making the public take responsibility. As consumers we have been told that there is no need to panic. The flow of life and the goods required to sustain it will continue pretty much undisturbed.

As responsible citizens, we have been told that our lives must change radically. To continue our old ways is to endanger ourselves and those who are vulnerable. In the wise and somewhat paradoxical words of the singer and self-styled “responsibiliser” Billie Eilish: “Don’t panic, but also don’t be stupid”.

The young people partying for spring break on the streets and beaches of Miami excelled in the “don’t panic” part, but unfortunately failed to appreciate the social distancing side of things. The young and healthy have not appeared to be fazed by the dangers of COVID-19, which is commonly believed to threaten only the old and the frail.

To make matters worse, the likelihood that we are not so much stopping the virus, but merely slowing down its spread has acted as a disincentive, aggravated by the absence of compelling communication – until now – about the critical value of slowing the virus.

Although commonly thought of in terms of public “awareness” and dissemination of expert knowledge, responsibilisation is as much a matter of emotion, as it is a matter of reason. Emotions such as hope, shame and pride play a decisive role. Do we feel responsible? Do we feel that our actions can make a real difference? Are we ashamed when we fail to act responsibly? It is one thing to be indifferent to statistics and expert warnings, and another to experience shaming for contributing to the suffering and death of others, as hospitals run out of beds and respirators? Personal responsibility is often based on the ability to relate emotionally to other human beings – their hopes and fears, their pain and suffering.

Collective and individual responsibility

Besides issues of empathy, when it comes to COVID-19 responsibilisation goes against the grain to a certain extent. In contrast to recent crises caused by terrorist attacks, weather events and political division, this time we are asked to stand together by standing apart. Instead being called to occupy the streets in protest, and frequent shops and pubs to support the local economy, we have been asked to stay in and to keep our distance. Acknowledging this difference might help us move forward.

Yet this sense of responsibility has not materialised in some people. In our haste to find better ways to make the public embrace its responsibilities – especially the reckless and the inconsiderate – the focus on personal responsibility and individual choice should never prevent society from taking necessary collective action. The UK government has now taken that action.

As New York Times commentator Charlie Warzel observed recently, one reason COVID-19 advice has been framed as a matter of personal choice and responsibility was to avoid the costs and duties of political and collective intervention. Political-economic research has taught us that responsibilisation entails a shifting of burden from the state and corporations to individual citizens and consumers – a shift that does not always serve the public interest.

Governments, corporations and other institutions must accept their share of responsibility too, even when this requires taking unpopular and costly measures. Clearly Prime Minister Boris Johnson has decided that decisive collective rules and interventions will be a faster and more reliable solution than the soft “nudging” of individuals to make the right choice.

Yet, as with other countries that have taken this action, further dilemmas arise as to how to ensure compliance with the new measures. More than ever, the delicate balance between collective and individual responsibility should be at the forefront of public and academic debate.

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