September 28, 2020

Informal Social Control and Pandemic Behavior

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

A few months ago I wrote about what the pandemic-related stay at home orders can teach us about formal social control, the use of rules, laws, and sanctions to try and shape people’s behavior. What can the pandemic teach us about informal social control?

While formal social control involves large-scale institutional actions, informal social control involves the influence of the people closest to us. Our primary groups, which include our family members and friends, have the most influence on us for several reasons.

We often seek their approval, even if we are not conscious of doing so, and thus our behavior may be influenced in order to maintain these close ties. We typically spend the most time with people in our primary groups, so we also tend to view social issues similarly due to our influence on one another and self-selection of friends and mates whose perspectives our compatible with our own.

How does informal social control shape pandemic-related behaviors? Here are a variety of ways it may work:
  • If our family members and friends are wearing masks, staying at home and away from crowded public spaces, we might be more likely to feel like this is an appropriate thing to do ourselves. Behaving differently might lead to confrontation with a family member or a refusal to interact with someone for fear of virus transmission.
  • Conversely, if our family members and friends regularly have people over and attend indoor gatherings without masks, we might also conclude that doing so is normal and partake in similar activities ourselves. To deny an invitation might be uncomfortable or even lead to ridicule. Being a lone mask-wearer could feel strange, especially if someone doesn’t want to risk potential negative attention from others.
  • We might have a family member or close friend with a compromised immune system who is experiencing a great deal of concern about their health due to the pandemic, which may in turn shape our behavior.
  • If someone close to us has been very sick with COVID we might be more likely to fear for our own health and stay home more. Knowing someone who has died of COVID would likely have the same effect, even if they were not necessarily close to us.
  • We may view posts on social media of people engaging in “pre-pandemic” behavior like being in large groups without masks, or conversely sharing messages encouraging people to stay home and wear a mask. These messages may shape the way we make decisions about our own behavior.

Not everyone has the same degree of influence on us, of course. The family member who is also a doctor might shape our behavior in this instance more than another member of the family who might be closer to us. We tend to have similar world views to those we are closest to, which can be one of the factors that make us close to them in the first place, or it might be that our behavior is shaped by similar factors. Having very divergent world views can create wedges in our relationships too.

The interesting thing about informal social control is that people around us whom we don’t even know, let alone have a strong attachment to, can shape our behavior. Imagine going to a beach where no one is wearing a mask, even though it is the law. Someone might feel too self-conscious to wear the mask they brought, or even fear being ridiculed by a stranger. A mask-less person might be on the receiving end of dirty looks or comments from strangers—or fears the possibility of such actions—and wears a mask in response.

Just as formal social control doesn’t always work, especially if there aren’t enough rule enforcers, informal social control doesn’t always work either. While the people we are closest to might influence us, especially if they share our world views, we might not care what others think of us in every circumstance.

Take the grocery store, for instance, or any retail experience where customers have been taught to see themselves as “always right.” Many retail workers are now expected to become rule enforcers when customers don’t comply and wear a mask.

The Los Angeles Times recently reported that, “the workers who must approach the mask-less are often the same frontline clerks who have long been among those most exposed to the virus. And the new duties are amping up their already high stress level.”

A Walmart spokesperson quoted in the story said that although employees receive training, they “have no authority to prevent resistant customers from going about their shopping.” Retail workers are often on the receiving end of customer abuse, and because of their position can do little in response without risking their jobs. In order to be effective, informal social control sometimes needs coordination with formal rules, laws, and sanctions to create compliance.

Informal social control can be very effective in shaping our behavior, but it has its limits. What other examples of effective informal social control have you seen during the pandemic? What might make informal social control more effective?

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