An Introduction to Social Influence and COVID: Excerpt from ‘Together Apart’

In order to address the issues surrounding COVID-19 and its collateral effects, Social Science Space is presenting a series of articles drawn from the new book Together Apart: the Psychology of COVID-19. You can click to each article in this section on collective behavior using the links below. To download an uncorrected proof version of the book, click here.

Efforts to influence people loom large in a pandemic. In particular, there is a demand for effective leadership which explains what is going on and motivates people to contribute to the achievement of shared group goals. There are two key reasons why this has been critical for the management of COVID-19. The first is that the virus has created a pressing need for people to work together to achieve new collective goals. Medical staff need to attend to the unwell, workers in a range of sectors need to maintain stretched services, and the general public need to do what they can to minimise the burden on those services and to halt the spread of the virus. The second reason is that there is considerable uncertainty about the nature of the virus and how to respond to it. People therefore look to others — and to leaders in particular — to help them understand what they should be thinking and doing, as well as how their actions contribute to a concerted societal response. As well as wanting coherent and convincing explanations of these things, people also want leaders who inspire them and others to put their shoulders to the collective wheel, in order to ‘do whatever it takes’ to endure the crisis and come out in the best possible shape on the other side.

In this section we look at multiple facets of the influence process that have been foregrounded during the COVID-19 pandemic, starting with an examination of psychology of effective leadership (Chapter 3). This is followed by an analysis of the dynamics of followership and compliance (Chapter 4), behaviour change (Chapter 5) and the spread of conspiracy theories (Chapter 6). The key message here is that all of these influence processes are grounded in a sense of shared social identity (‘us-ness’) within a community. Accordingly, in order to secure compliance and desired forms of influence, the first priority of would-be influencers (e.g., leaders) is to cultivate this feeling of ‘us-ness’. In short, they need to be entrepreneurs of identity who make sure there is an ‘us’ to rally behind.

Explore the social influence chapters of Together Apart

Introduction to Social Influence

Leadership | S. Alex Haslam
The ultimate proof of leadership is not how impressive a leader looks or sounds, but what they lead others to do.

Compliance and Followership | Niklas K. Steffens
What drives compliance and followership? When do people choose not to comply with advice or regulations? What are helpful (and not so helpful) forms of followership?

Behaviour Change | Frank Mols
Social identity processes are a key source of human strength, and that leaders who tap into these are best positioned to drive the forms of behaviour change required to defeat COVID-19.    

Conspiracy Theories | Matthew Hornsey
Conspiracy theories are often peddled by leaders and people in positions of authority with a view to shoring up support for a worldview which they represent and are seeking to advance.


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Jolanda Jetten, Stephen Reicher, S. Alexander Haslam, and Tegan Cruwys

Jolanda Jetten is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Stephen Reicher is a professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews. S. Alexander Haslam is a professor in the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland. Tegan Cruwys is a researcher in the College of Health & Medicine at Australian National University. All are authors of Together Apart: The Psychology of COVID-19.

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