In March, there was a sense that “we’re all in this together”. We stayed home under the national lockdown because really, it seemed like the only option.
But now, as a range of different regional restrictions are placed on our lives through the three-tier system, some of us may feel less inclined to follow the rules than we did previously.
The nation is feeling variously “hopeless”, “angry”, “frustrated” and “exasperated” at the introduction of the system – according to HuffPost’s How Are You Feeling? project, which has been inviting readers to share their experience of the pandemic via this online form.
April Groen, from Woodbridge, Suffolk, is among the hundreds who’ve been in touch. She said she’s struggling to stay optimistic, now that she’s banned from visiting her daughter in Newcastle. “The hardest thing is having gone through seven months of this,” she said, ”[but] we haven’t actually achieved anything and we seem to be at the start again.”
“Although we can’t ignore the science behind a tiered system, we also need to recognise the psychological processes that may occur with such a system being imposed,” she tells HuffPost UK . “Any layered system may create feelings of being ‘scolded’ if in a higher tier.”
The perception of being “punished” may spur some to rebel against the rules, says Dr Quinn-Cirillo, as human beings are programmed to believe that good behaviour will be rewarded – but we have not been “rewarded” for sticking to the first lockdown.
“Throughout our childhood, in many cultures we are rewarded for adhering to rules, such a praise for being polite or waiting in a queue nicely. Reinforcement is a significant factor in rule adherence,” she says. “As adults we continue to respond to being praised or acknowledged for positive behaviour and adhering to societal rules.”
A number of readers described feeling “tired” and “drained” this autumn, which is no surprise to Dr Quinn-Cirillo, who says our motivation for rule following “may also be waning”.
“It may be important to consider that after many months of lockdown, restrictions and social isolation, people may be struggling emotionally,” she says. “This may exert an impact on their ability to empathise with others and show compassion towards others. This may invariably impact on rule adherence, in respect to perhaps putting themselves and their needs above the greater good.”
There is no exact science to explain why some people are inclined to be “rule breakers” while others are “rule followers”, adds Dr Quinn-Cirillo, but we do know that it’s influenced by our perception of risk.
Risk assessment occurs in the front of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex, and a number of factors will influence our conclusions, including our personal fears, previous experience of adversity and historical response to authority.
“We will judge whether we adhere to rules using consideration of the sanctions as a result of not adhering to the rules, how fair the rules are perceived to be and what we will get in return,” says Dr Quinn-Cirillo.
A “perceived element of unfairness” will dissuade many from sticking to rules, she adds. “The examples of public figures not adhering to rules are examples of this.”
Of course, not everyone will flout the new rules and the readers who told us they are feeling “scared” or anxious” will no doubt be trying to diligently learn the latest laws of the land. But it’s only possible to do this if we actually understand what’s being asked of us.
One Oxfordshire-based reader, who wished to remain anonymous, said they’re feeling “confused and on edge” after the announcement of the tiered system.
“The lockdown was hard but simple. Now it’s more nuanced and there are mixed messages,” they added. “The constantly changing restrictions seem to make no sense. And there is no end in sight.”
Dr Quinn-Cirillo believes the government should work to clear up confusion, because “people respond to clear and consistent information”.
“If we are being asked to adhere to a set of rules, it is important that we are informed as to the rationale behind the rules,” she says. “Ultimately human beings like control. When we feel lack of control it can exert an impact on how we behave.”