More than a party – A consumer behaviour look at the impact of government sleaze on public health

Trust in politicians in the UK has taken a tumble, recently. The IPPR revealed that, as of the end of last year, the British Public’s distrust in politicians was at an all-time high:

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Moreover, according to YouGov numbers, as of last week, almost 2/3 of all UK adults disapproved of the Government’s record to date:

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This tumble in trust levels comes in the wake of a series of political scandals, such as the suspected corruption in the awarding of PPE and testing contracts; the shady mechanisms to fund the remodelling of the Prime Minister’s flat; the Owen Patterson’s lobbying scandal and the subsequent attempt by Boris Johnson’s government to change the parliamentary standards to save Patterson’s job; and, now, the row over the Downing Street parties

It is not the purpose of this blog post to pass judgment on politicians in general, or this government specifically. Rather, I want to unpack how this trend has an impact on consumer behaviour, and, because of this, very serious consequences for all our lives. To do this, let me, first introduce a number of concepts:

TrustThe firm belief in someone or something.
Institutional TrustThe expectation that politicians, governments, and other such organisations will do the “right thing” and, in particular, that they will follow the rules. It is essential for social stability.
Interpersonal TrustThe expectation that other people will not harm us. It shapes behavioural tendencies.

And:

CooperationThe process of working together to achieve a common goal, possibly to the detriment of one’s own goals.
First-order cooperationDirect actions taken by individuals, voluntarily, to support the common objective. For instance, not littering.
Second-order cooperationActions taken by individuals which indirectly support the common goal. May require enforcement. For instance, paying taxes that support the cleaning of public areas.

In order to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been asked to engage in a number of first-order cooperation efforts. For instance, we have been asked to adopt protective behaviours such as avoiding social gatherings and wearing masks. We have also been told to follow a number of second-order efforts such as testing regularly or getting vaccinated. Those that do not comply with these orders may be prevented from accessing certain venues, services and rights.

These first and second order actions are highly consequential for the overall effort of containing the virus, saving lives (both directly by reducing the number of infections, and indirectly by not burdening the health services), and beginning economic recovery. Yet, as shown by research conducted by Hang Yuan, Qinyi Long, Guanglv Huang, Liqin Huang and Siyang Luo, compliance with those behaviours is highly dependent on the levels of Institutional and Interpersonal Trust.

The results from Yuan and colleagues’ research are reported in the open-access paper entitled “Different roles of interpersonal trust and institutional trust in COVID-19 pandemic control”, which was published in the Social Science and Medicine journal.

Through analysis of secondary data, the researchers found that interpersonal trust was significantly correlated with speed of spread of infection, while institutional trust was significantly correlated with subsequent case fatality rate:

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They, then, conducted experiments to unpack the mechanisms leading to this result. They found that interpersonal trust increased compliance with first order behaviours such as reducing social contact. They also found that willingness to participate in state-organised initiatives such as Covid testing was highly dependent on institutional trust. Moreover, institutional trust was significantly associated with voluntary compliance with those measures, unlike enforced compliance. That is, institutional trust not only ensures a particular behaviour, but reduces the need for enforcing measures, which are expensive and could result in pushback from populations. 

The researchers also investigated the role of culture in the adoption of collaborative behaviours, by conducting experiments in the US (individualistic culture) and China (collective culture). They found that: “When the effectiveness of epidemic mitigation largely depends on the restriction and regulation of individuals’ personal habits, people in areas with a highly individualistic culture are less likely to be influenced by social norms and thus are more likely to disobey when epidemic prevention behaviour conflicts with free will.”

This means that, in countries with high individualistic cultures – as is the case of the UK – we can rely less on first-order collaboration efforts to achieve a public goal. Or, in other words, high institutional trust becomes particularly important in ensuring voluntary compliance with collaborative behaviours in individual cultures, such as the UK.

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This is why the question of whether Downing Street had parties or not – and whether Boris Johnson knowingly participated in them – is so worrying from a consumer behaviour perspective. The current low levels of trust in politicians and in government, in the UK, are bound to have a highly detrimental effect in the uptake of behaviours such as testing regularly, getting the vaccine, wearing masks, and so on. In fact, this effect goes beyond public-health – it is relevant to all areas where the achievement of a public goal requires private sacrifices, such as environment protection, taxation, and others.

So, yes, from a consumer behaviour and public health perspective, it does matter whether it was a work meeting or a party matters.

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