Did the COVID-19 pandemic change our social norms?


As you might remember, a lot of our social behaviors changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and how we perceived the behaviors of others. What was once deemed acceptable behavior became scrutinized, with the looming question of punishment for non-compliance hanging in the air. But what about the social norms, the unwritten social rules that guide our behavior – how did they change by a crisis as profound, global, and multifaceted as COVID-19?

Philosopher Giulia Andrighetto together with a whole bunch of other researchers joined forces in order to compare the norms in 43 countries before and during the early stages of the pandemic. What they expected was that countries with a high level of cultural tightness – societies with strong social norms and a tendency to punish deviations – would respond to the crisis with strict behavioral restrictions and therefore be more successful in crisis management, while countries with a lower level of cultural tightness – societies with weak social norms and minimal punishment of norm-breakers, would encounter difficulties.

The influential theory of cultural tightness, also known as the “Tightness-Looseness” theory, suggests that the social norms in a society would strengthen during a crisis to maintain order and survive chaos – an interesting theory in times of warfare and environmental catastrophes. However, it falls a bit short in specifying which social norms would typically change. 

As it turned out, both the theory and the authors’ expectations were proven wrong by the study – social norms did not increase during the beginning of the pandemic. Not only did cultural tightness and punitive measures not increase as expected, most norms remained stable. The only social norm that changed, regardless of the previous level of cultural tightness, was the one concerning hand washing, something that was perceived directly relevant to dealing with the collective threat.

So the findings in the study show that even a crisis as COVID-19 doesn’t dramatically change the social norms of cultures in the short-term, except those believed to directly reduce the threat, in this case, when and how to wash our hands.

Read the full article “Change in social norms during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic across 43 countries” i Nature Communications