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Uncovering the evidence for behavioural fatigue (CW4.2)

At the start of the pandemic, public health officials and policy makers were concerned about “behavioural fatigue” or the concept that prolonged periods of restrictions may lead to reduced compliance. This concern supported delays in the imposition of lockdowns and affected messaging over the likely extent and duration of future restrictions. However, there was insufficient prior evidence of the existence of “behavioural fatigue” as noted in an open letter in the BMJ from over 600 behavioural scientists (more), and considerable unease that this concept was being used to justify a high-risk public health policy.


In Crucible-29Mar (more) we introduced the COVID-19 Social Study that has been surveying adults on a range of different behaviours since the beginning of the pandemic. Last week, Wright, Steptoe and Fancourt released a further study (more) from 50,000 adults within this cohort that tracked self-reported compliance between 1 April 2020 and 22 February 2021. The study found that whilst most individuals had returned to comparable levels of compliance by the start of 2021, 1 in 7 were significantly less compliant during the 2nd wave as indicated in Figure 2.1.



Figure 2.1 – Population compliance levels from COVID-19 Social Study

Source: Compliance trajectories from COVID-19 Social Study


Regression analysis identified particularly strong associations between belonging to class 4 and risk-taking behaviours, younger age, low emotional empathy and low conscientiousness. The study emphasised the importance of risk and personality traits as set out in Figure 2.2 over material factors.


Figure 2.2 – Regression analysis of class membership based on personality traits (relative to class 1)

Source: Compliance trajectories from COVID-19 Social Study


Further, it should be noted that the COVID-19 Social Study is based on a self-selecting group of volunteers, and as such the findings of the study are more likely to be underestimating the level of non-compliance in the general population.

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