Dr Bodo Lang examines New Zealanders’ ‘reactance’ to Covid restrictions – and how to lower the threat of compliance fatigue

Individuals like their freedom. They like the freedom to travel to places of their choice, to enjoy experiences with others of their choosing, and to buy the products and brands they prefer.

However, due to Covid-19, these freedoms are limited and may continue to be for some time.

The Government has managed to keep New Zealanders largely compliant with adhering to Covid-19 regulations. But as we face extended time in various levels of lockdown, what strategies could the Government – and those in authority – take to ensure our continued compliance?

‘Reactance theory’ could help. The premise of this theory is that humans can have strong negative reactions to realising that their freedom is being restricted. This extends to consumers who realise that their preferred product is not available, or to New Zealanders who are currently experiencing reactance because of Covid lockdown restrictions.

Reactance has two key effects: The first effect is that the alternative that’s not available becomes even more desirable. In other words, as consumers, we really want what we cannot have. Think back to your reaction to an ‘out of stock’ notice in your local supermarket. At that point, it is likely that you really wanted that flour, bread, hand sanitiser, face mask, etc. The second effect is that consumers have a negative reaction towards the agency they believe has limited their choice. Thinking about the ‘out of stock’ example, consumers would have likely shown reactance against the supermarket, other shoppers, or the Government.

Reactance has been shown to exist in many studies across diverse geographies, groups of consumers and contexts. So how can agencies and organisations possibly lessen the public’s reactance? Communication is critical.

When informing the public why restrictions are in place, there are at least two possible ways to frame such arguments: a gain and a loss frame. A gain frame describes how we may be better off if we behave as instructed. A loss frame on the other hand describes what we might lose if we do not behave as instructed.

Both frames can be effective but loss frames tend to be, on average, more effective. To maximise the impact of gain and loss frames, messages – and their delivery – need to be authentic and relatable.

Providing examples that resonate with highly diverse audiences such as the New Zealand population is key. One way to achieve this is to make things personal so the public see the linkage between short-term, non-compliant behaviour and the possible detrimental long-term consequences, for them, their family and whānau, and particularly for vulnerable people in their network.

Think grandparents, parents, aunties, uncles, etc. Tapping into that aspect to craft messages around the ‘why’ is one fruitful avenue to encourage us to comply with – and show less reactance towards – the possibility of extended restrictions. Using such appeals will also help with achieving high rates of compliance in case we need to jump backwards and forwards between levels of restriction in the future.

Such approaches are likely to work particularly well with cultural groups that have a collectivist orientation. Put simply, messages about Covid’s impact on one’s social group are particularly likely to work with people who operate in groups. The reverse is also true as we have all witnessed internationally: protests to Covid restrictions were most severe in countries with strong individualist orientations, such as the US. Put differently, people who value their personal freedom more highly than communal values are more likely to experience reactance to Covid restrictions.

Another powerful tool to explain the ‘why’ of our severe lockdown restrictions – and therefore to reduce reactance – is to convert the daily Covid-related numbers into visuals. A quick scan of major New Zealand news outlets and an assessment of government briefings shows that numbers abound. There is a great opportunity here to turn daily case numbers and vaccination rates etc into easy-to digest graphs. For example, graphs could clearly show the daily trend of case numbers across a two or three-week period. Similarly, another opportunity for visualisation is the questions New Zealanders should ask themselves before deciding to be tested for Covid.

All of these steps are likely to reduce New Zealanders’ reactance to Covid restrictions, decreasing the threat of compliance fatigue and thus lessen community transmission. And that will see New Zealand return to greater freedoms sooner – something everybody wants.

Dr Bodo Lang is from the Department of Marketing, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Auckland.

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