The Psychology Of Snitching On Neighbours In The Age Of Covid

If the couple at number 39 are having an illegal rave – and breaking the rule of six – would you dob them in?

Kevin and Lisa at number 39 always smile and wave when they see you pass. But tonight, they have 15 friends over for an end-of-summer dinner party in the garden. Your silent resentment has been bubbling up for a few hours, as you watch them mingling and hugging with others from your bedroom window.

Thoughts flood through your head: how could they be so careless? Why do they get to have all the fun while others sticks to the rules? What if they catch Covid and pass it to me? And... should I snitch on them?

If you were Priti Patel, maybe you would dob them in. Discussing the “rule of six” on Sky News, the home secretary said if she saw something inappropriate in her neighbourhood, “then quite frankly I would effectively call the police”. “It’s not about dobbing in neighbours,” she said. “I think it’s all about us taking personal responsibility.”

Whichever way you look at it, reporting your neighbours to the police for flouting Covid-19 rules is dobbing them in. The very definition is “to tell someone in authority about something bad that another person has done”.

In a conflicting statement, the prime minister has since said he doesn’t condone calling the police – unless they’re having “Animal House” parties with “hot tubs and so forth”. Boris Johnson told The Sun he’s “never much been in favour of sneak culture” and said people should raise issues with neighbours first.

The police and crime commissioner for the Thames Valley, Anthony Stansfeld, agreed, urging people not to tell on their neighbours. He didn’t think snitching to the police was necessary “except in the most extreme circumstances”, the BBC reported.

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If the thought of reporting your neighbours makes your stomach turn, you’re not alone. Humans don’t feel comfortable with dobbing in others because of trust, which is really important to the relationships we build. We want to feel part of a community and trust is a key part of that. And we want to try, at all costs, to not break that trust.

“People are social beings,” says Professor Helen Haste, professor at the University of Bath, whose research interests span civic and moral responsibility. “One thing we learn from a very early age is how to get along with people and how to give and take between ourselves and the people close to us – the exchange of things like: ‘I do things for you, you do things for me.’”

Psychologists heavily suspect where people have strong direct links with their neighbours, such as interacting positively, they won’t report them. “If you betray that trust you harm the relationship,” says Haste. “The very idea of reporting somebody for what might be seen as a minor deviation from the rules breaks the whole code of loyalty and community.”

So, if you want to maintain a friendly relationship with Kevin and Lisa at number 39, you’re probably not going to snitch. “If you do, it’s not going to do a lot for your social life or for how much they trust you,” says Prof Haste.

Prof Haste adds that there might be more of a reluctance to call the police right now anyway, because of the pressure from the government to conform to rules. “People are feeling there’s a lot of rather arbitrary rules being made and it’s not always obvious why they’re being made – so I think there might be a certain reaction against that,” she says.

But on the flip side, there’s another moral pressure at play – “that we’re living in a time of considerable danger to health and we have a public responsibility to avoid spreading the disease,” says Prof Haste.

“People do feel there is this public responsibility, we should help to maintain the form of controls on spreading the contagion,” she says. “So I think people are torn – for many people it would be a real moral dilemma.”

So, why would a person snitch? There are many factors at play, here.

The first would be what it is the neighbour is actually doing to warrant attention – a dinner party is quite different to a full-blown rave in a nearby field. The second is whether the person knows their neighbour well or not. They might be quite happy to report an unknown person a few streets away who’s been having a house party until 4am. But if Lisa and Kevin have 15 mates around, and their kids regularly play together, they’ll be less likely to snitch.

Adults are a lot more willing to report on those with which we have impersonal relationships, adds Professor Dominic Abrams, an expert in social psychology at the University of Kent, offering the examples of temporary rental occupants or neighbours who we already have conflictual relationships with. “Then, the chances that someone would report them will inevitably increase,” he adds.

“A lot depends on your own community’s feel as part of a larger community.”

- Professor Helen Haste, professor at the University of Bath

Might there be personality differences that affect people’s willingness to report? “Perhaps so,” says Prof Abrams, “but the underlying reason is likely to be because the person feels uncertain about risks and wants to establish a greater sense of control over the threat to themselves and others,” he says.

“It might be that more authoritarian people feel such risks more keenly or that they have a greater need for control, but it could be other factors that trigger these motivations such as a desire to be a ‘good citizen’ or a sense that others in the neighbourhood would appreciate this action.”

On the other hand, a person may be less likely to snitch on their neighbours if they’re from a marginalised community, suggests Prof Haste. “A lot depends on your own community’s feel as part of a larger community,” she says. Some people may be more likely to believe their patterns of behaviour are in line with what the rest of the country is doing, so have no issue thinking if they tell the police what’s going on, they’re still doing the kind of things that their community would consider okay.

“But if I was in a marginalised community, I would probably feel the authorities are against us, they are our enemy, and I wouldn’t want to go and tell them about anything that was going on inside my community because that would be breaking a big trust,” she adds.

Prof Abrams says there are four courses of action people can take if they’re concerned about a neighbour – or even a friend, family member, spouse – flouting the rules.

“People can do nothing, they can discuss with other people to share their concern, they can directly appeal to their neighbour, or they can report their neighbour,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a single morally correct thing to do, because each alternative has its practical and social, as well as moral, merits.”

Prof Haste recommends approaching the neighbour directly if you have any kind of relationship you want to maintain. You could say: ‘this is not acceptable, you can’t do this’ or ‘I’m worried you’re passing the virus on to me and my family’. It’s something she would do herself if in the same position.

“If you have trust with your neighbours, and trust with your friends, surely you can use that trust to put pressure on them to take precautions rather than either saying nothing or telling the authorities?” she adds.