Coronavirus and COVID-19

COVID-19 and the new norms

Tom Dickins, Professor of Behavioural Science discusses the social risks surrounding the new Rule of Six.

Tom Dickins, Professor of Behavioural Science discusses the social risks surrounding the new Rule of Six.

It is September 2020 and the world is still firmly in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Here in the UK, as in many other parts of the world, we have undergone a full lockdown that brought the reproductive rate (R) of the SARS-CoV-2 virus down to just below 1.  This undoubtedly enabled much-needed breathing space for our health services. 

But now R is rising, and with it, rates of infection, and soon it is predicted that the number of deaths will begin to increase significantly also.

One solution to this rise in cases is to enforce local lockdowns in areas with particularly high infection rates.  This form of targeting has been on-going since the easing of national level lockdown procedures in the U.K. 

Another solution, implemented from 18 September 2020, has been to impose the rule of six. The rule of six has proved contentious, in part due to many exemptions, differences in its rendition across all countries in the UK, and the fact that the number six appears to have been arbitrarily chosen. 

Putting to one side these possible inadequacies, it is worth inspecting just what the rule of six is. 

At first pass it seems to be a legal requirement.  Thus it may simply be a permitted entailment of the COVID 2020 act (but see this discussion for other thoughts).  However, it may also be understood as an attempt to engineer new social norms within UK society.

Colleagues sat together around an iPad wearing masks

Social norms

Social norms, or just norms, are shared beliefs about the kinds of behaviours that are appropriate in various situations [1].  But they can also simply be understood as what the majority of people do – a purely behavioural measure.

Norms have been categorised as descriptive, whereby people are able to simply state what most people do, and injunctive, whereby some kind of punishment structure is used to shape behaviours to a desired outcome [2]. 

It is into this last category that the rule of six fits.

The rule of six states that people cannot gather in groups of 6+n individuals, either inside or outside, and if they do, the police services have the power to disband such groups and fine individuals if they refuse to disband. 

Whilst this leaves the police to enforce the norm of small group sociality, some government ministers have suggested that peer engagement with norm enforcement is also useful; we should report our neighbours if they violate this rule.

The rule of six differs qualitatively from the safeguards associated with lockdown, because it is to be followed in the context of a largely reopened society; children are still going to school, students are about to start at university, employees are returning to work and we can go out for a meal and a drink. 

The idea behind the rule seems to be to make salient the idea of controlled sociality, of offsetting the other risks that may be taken in order to keep society running (see here for a related argument).  As such, this rule, whilst hopefully transient, is designed for a reasonably long period of time.

New norms

What do we know about norm change within society?  Two major contributors to norm research, Elias [3, 4] and Inglehart [5–7], have made related arguments. 

Elias has argued that for Western Europe, we have seen an increase in the number of norms, thus norms have become more restrictive or stricter. He particularly focused upon hygiene and violence norms.  He argued that as societies shifted away from more ancient power structures, toward increased interconnectedness between individuals brought about by the emergence of central governance and monopolies in industry, people were able to take on more self-regulation and norms began to increase within society.

Inglehart makes related claims around autonomy.  As societies managed to control or remove existential threat (such as disease and conflict) their reliance upon collectives, and subservience to power such as organised religions, dwindled.  This enabled people to become more autonomous and self directed.  For Inglehart this means that norms can become more inclusive, and more flexible than those sustained under more controlling situations. 

Both Elias and Inglehart are reflecting upon a trend toward collectivism, where individuals connect more through innovation and locally shared needs, enabling economic diversification.  These things are possible when crucial threats are removed and breathing space is created.  The law-like normative structures of feudal power and organised religions may have worked in such existentially dire times, but their relevance is reduced when the world is effectively safer.  An outcome of this may be the creation of many more norms within the collective, but also different norms reflecting different local practices and requirements.

Here and now

The COVID-19 pandemic is clearly a grave existential threat, but in the UK this threat is to be understood against a backdrop of a long but recent history of reducing dangers. 

For example, we can make a case for increasing safety and collectivism in the years following WWII [8], with marked economic and technological growth and an increasing sense of self-regulation accompanied by diverse and coexisting norms operating within subpopulations.  This means that the UK population as a whole (and similar populations elsewhere) are now having to come to terms with norms about social interaction that are imposed by a third party, rather than norms that have naturally emerged through collective action.

Legislation, through central governance, is designed to keep core existential threats at bay and to engender the kind of collectivism that encourages economic growth.  But this is more usually achieved at arm’s length, and without imposing directly upon the interactions of citizens.  Instead, the law acts to create and protect health-promoting institutions that allow citizens to flourish. 

This disease challenges the very gains made during what Inglehart terms modernisation because it exists and thrives within social groups; it can legitimately be seen as an attack on our modern way of life.  This goes a long way toward explaining the bellicose language in the early days of the pandemic.

To tie punishment to violation of the rule of six may seem like a quick way to establish normative behaviour.  Citizens are used to conforming to the law, and legislated behaviours tend to stabilise. But the rule of six is a radical change to how we operate; in many ways more radical than a collective effort to lockdown for a finite period in order to all protect society together

It is legislation that gives us some freedom, but asks us to choose who to associate with.  More than that, this right to choose our five other associates is in fact not evenly distributed as some people live in families of six, or larger, restricting their degrees of freedom compared with those who live alone or in smaller groups. 

Quite suddenly the norm we are being asked to adhere to introduces inequality of opportunity, and that will lead to an uneven distribution of punishment and possibly the creation of specific attitudes about those who are more likely to violate the rule. 

Put bluntly, the rule stands every chance of damaging our sense of collectivism.

Other dynamics

Elias and Inglehart described a direction of travel for societies, away from autocracy toward self-regulation and naturally emerging norms.  It is possible to contemplate a reversal of this under harsh and austere times. 

As existential threats mount – we currently face COVID-19 and the wholesale degradation of our environment through biodiversity loss and climate change leading to inevitable economic catastrophe – it is possible that our mechanisms of central governance and collectivism that brought so much freedom and tolerance might be abandoned.

Inglehart notes that existential insecurity is conducive to xenophobia, authoritarian politics and adherence to rigid cultural norms [5] and he has written about the impact of increasing wealth inequality enabling a cultural backlash from older segments of society seeking to return to more traditional norms and more authoritarian governance because they associate the progressive values of modernisation with a loss of security [8]. 

This is a part of his account of the rise of populism in the USA, which he sees as diametrically opposed to the collectivism discussed above.  Here in the UK wealth inequality and inequality of access to opportunity across diverse groupings directly impacts upon health and longevity, reducing existential security for many. 

Up until 2011, progress had been made in tackling some of these issues but then inequalities began to re-establish themselves and grow in large part due to austerity policies designed to deal with the 2008 financial crash [9].

An unequal society is one that is structurally divided or dividing into multiple subpopulations.  Inglehart’s notion of populism is one where that process leads to competition or the perception of competition between those groups.  This kind of situation mobilises the psychology of coalitions in a negative way, and can readily encourage paranoid responses to out groups and the structuring of complex narratives to justify a belief in out group threat [10]. 

Asking neighbours to report their peers for violation of an imposed norm, the rule of six, will only aid the development of paranoid ideation, in both directions; we are under threat from norm violators, we are under threat for violating a norm that is unequally applied to us.

People will either succumb to this paranoia and society will continue to suffer division, or they will ignore the rule and the hidden point about offsetting risk will be lost.  I assume Inglehart has a view on those politicians who make such recommendation, and their view of governance.


HM Government has a difficult task and tackling COVID-19 will clearly rely upon social changes given the nature of the virus that causes it.  But if my use of norm theory and the work of Elias and Inglehart is correct, then there are real dangers from imposing the wrong kind of social intervention. 

Policy makers and their advisors need to be fully aware of the architecture of the population they hope to serve.  Population structures not only affect viral spread, but also the ideals of the people constituting those populations.


  1. Mackie, G., Moneti, F., Denny, E. & Shakya, H. 2014 What are Social Norms? How are they Measured?
  2. Cialdini, R. B. 2003 Crafting Normative Messages. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 12, 105–109.
  3. Elias, N. 1978 The Civilizing Process. Urizen Books Pantheon Books.
  4. Linklater, A. & Mennell, S. 2010 Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations – An overview and assessment. Hist. Theory 49, 384–411.
  5. Inglehart, R. 2018 Modernization, existential security, and cultural change: Reshaping human motivations and society. In Handbook of Advances in Culture and Psychology (eds C. Y. Gelfand & Y.-Y. H. Chiu), pp. 1–59. Oxford University Press. (doi:10.1093/oso/9780190879228.003.0001)
  6. Zhirkov, K. & Inglehart, R. F. 2019 Human Security And Religious Change: An Analysis Of 65 Societies Across 1981–2014. Sociology. (doi:10.2139/ssrn.3504661)
  7. Inglehart, R. & Baker, W. E. 2000 Modernization, cultural change, and the persistence of traditional values. Am. Sociol. Rev. 65, 19–51. (doi:10.2307/2657288)
  8. Inglehart, R. & Norris, P. 2017 Trump and the Populist Authoritarian Parties: The Silent Revolution in Reverse. Perspect. Polit. 15, 443–454. (doi:10.1017/S1537592717000111)
  9. Marmot, M., Allen, J., Boyce, T., Goldblatt, P. & Morrison, J. 2020 Health Equity in England: The Marmot Review 10 Years On.
  10. Raihani, N. J. & Bell, V. 2019 An evolutionary perspective on paranoia. Nat. Hum. Behav. 3, 114–121. (doi:10.1038/s41562-018-0495-0)

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