School of Health Sciences

Dr Chris Cocking

Dr Chris Cocking discusses social distancing

School of Health Sciences Principal Lecturer, Dr Chris Cocking, discusses social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and how the public has responded positively to the measures. Watch the podcast below:

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Below is a transcript of the conversation.

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Chris, we’ve had approaching four weeks of lockdown. How are you finding everything?

Me, personally, I’m kind of just getting along with it. I kind of get into a little routine of doing things. I mean, obviously the research which I’ve done and how people deal with these things has helped because it’s made me realise that the vast majority of people are resilient. So that kind of reassures me.

It’s great to have you on speak about this. Tell us a bit about your background, and area of research, first of all.

Okay. So, I have got a kind of dual backgrounds. Academically, I’m a psychologist by trade. I’m a social psychologist. So, I’m interested in looking at crowd behaviour, collective action, all different ways when people come together, be it a festival, a gathering, in an emergency or a demonstration. So that’s my kind of thing that I look at academically is how do people act in crowds? And I also did my nurse training at the University of Brighton as a psychiatric nurse and I’ve worked with young people in child and adolescent mental health services.

OK. Let’s talk about what we’re all going through now then, the lockdown has been extended as expected. How do you think the public have responded to it in general?

I think people have behaved remarkably well. That doesn’t surprise me. That’s what I would have expected. I remember I was intrigued by Sky News just as the lockdown was coming into force and the pundits and the politicians at the time seemed very concerned about people’s adherence to it. When they’re talking about people’s adherence to it, which is what myself and other colleagues who researched this would have expected. They all seem quite surprised, but people do tend to behave remarkably resiliently in public emergency. The crucial thing is how do you kind of take the mass of the people and encourage them that this is the right and proper thing to do and it’s for everyone’s collective well-being to do it. Now, I’m not surprised that people do seem to be sticking to it, and I’m pleased that they are.

Before the lockdown came in there were lots of reports in the media about people ignoring the guidance. But since the measures have been brought in, it has been largely adhered to, hasn’t it? And we even got through a really sunny Easter weekend, which I guess MP’s probably were a bit nervous about. Did we not give the public enough credit to start with?

No, we don’t. I don’t think overall the public are trusted to behave well in emergencies. And that was reflected, for example, in the media reporting of what will almost certainly be in a minority of acts of people. And some of the interviews from Sky News, people going out to beauty spots before the lockdown properly came in and it’s not to say it isn’t a problem, but this was a very minority behaviour that was going on. And the crucial thing that myself and other psychologist do is how do we create social norms to encourage people to do the right and proper thing, which is to obey the lockdown? One thing I’m constantly saying to the media is that if you report instances of behaviour of people behaving in individual and or selfish ways, such as visiting beauty spots or stockpiling- what the media often call panick buying. That creates a social norm if people see that on TV they then think, well, okay, I can do that as well. I need to do that as well. And it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. And I’m constantly saying to the media, if you report things as panic buying or people going out and seeing beauty spots you will create a self-fulfilling prophecy and whatever behaviours you are seeing at the time will escalate after the media coverage.

I know you don’t like the term panic buying itself. Do you think then that was all driven by the media attention?

I think the media had a very large part to play. I would be careful to say that there wasn’t any stockpiling at all before the media reported it. But in previous instances of stockpiling, for example, in the fuel crisis of 2012, it almost always increases exponentially after media reports. It’s because it creates a social dilemma. If people see what they think are limited resources in the fuel crisis it was petrol. More recently, it’s been toilet paper. If people see the media reporting empty shelves. People will then go out and say, if I don’t go and get my supply, I will lose out. And so, yes, it almost always increases. And I’ve seen even some farcical situations where the media have almost been trying to create a situation where they’ve been running up and down petrol forcourt queues, for example, in 2012, trying to interview people, saying, how are you panicking? Aren’t you scared? And they say, no, I’m really bored, I really wish I wasn’t here, but I need to fill up my car with petrol. And so, I think the very idea of calling it panic buying, which implies some people are anxious, they’re fearful they are panicking is just ludicrous. It’s not backed up by the evidence at all, no know, one, for example, is having a panic attack while doing this. So, to call it panic buying is nonsensical and it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That might be part of it. But then obviously if people are doing it, you feel like you might have to do it. We see it on a non-emergency way when you might even go on a flight and you’re sitting in the departure lounge and suddenly everyone starts standing up to go and get on the plane when they know they’ve got their seat and everyone else starts doing it, even though you start saying, oh, why are they doing it? If you see people doing something you might do yourself anyway, right?

Well, there is a danger of that social norm being created. So, what you need to do in that situation is say that you don’t need to do it. A very good example of people getting up tp get on the flight- what they do now is that people with priority and people with vulnerable family or small children, they say these people have priority first. People tend to respect that. So, for example, you don’t get a serge when they start boarding and people allow people with small children to go first. It’s not that individual behaviour can’t be problematic, but it’s how do you create the social norms to say- You’ve all got a seat you’re all going to get on. There is no rush.

Behaviour now has quickly changed, hasn’t it? I mean, queuing in 2 metre gaps outside food shops now suddenly feels a bit normal. It’s only when you really think about what’s going on that you can find this current situation quite odd. Does it show how resilient we as a population are, how humans are really quite malleable?

Yes, absolutely. I mean, a colleague is doing some research with the hashtag new social norms on Twitter, where they’re being encouraged to report through what they see as new social norms. That, for example, the social distancing is a very good example. And some people have even said it shouldn’t be called social distancing, it should be called physical distancing. Because I’m noticing anecdotally this is backed up by a lot of evidence, is that while people are sticking two meters away from each other, people are making eye contact. They’re talking to each other more than making space for people. They’re letting people get in front. And then people are noting their head in acknowledgement and saying, thank you. I’m certainly doing it more. I’m talking far more with my neighbors than I used to. So even though, I’m not getting within two meters from them, I’m striking up conversation, so I would say its physical distancing rather than social distancing. And people have virtual ways of communicating with each other. Skype, Zoom and lots of people- myself included are now having weekly meetings with friends and family instead of going out to the pub- pub quizzes becoming a massive thing. So social distancing is a bit of a misnomer.

There is a theory that an extended lockdown could create some sort of, I guess, physical distancing fatigue. Do you think people will get bored? Many may start ignoring the rules or people may start ignoring the rules because it’s been a long three and a half weeks for many already. Not everyone has access to, you know, a garden or some people are living on their own. And so, it might be a bit tougher on some than others.

It’s difficult when you’re talking as a social psychologist to make predictions about the behaviour of everybody because there will always be outliers, but generally I think, yes, if people are reminded of the need for it to save lives, then yes, people will stick to it. I mean, it’s an interesting thing that we talked about. Myself and other colleagues in this area about the fear of lockdown fatigue. I understand that it weighed heavily on minister’s decision to delay a lockdown. They were concerned would people get fatigued by it? And it’s something myself and others signed an open letter that said we are not aware of any credible evidence that people do get fatigue of necessary measures if they know that there is a need to do it and the social norms are there the majority of people will adhere to it. The example that I often use is the behavior of the home front during World War 2, during the bombing campaigns of British and German cities. Before the war satrted the authorities were terrified about hundreds of thousands of casualties and millions of psychiatric casualties of people not being able to cope with the bombing of civilian cities. An interesting thing about the data they found is that the home front never cracks. Thirty thousand Londoners died in the Blitz, and I think over 2 million Germans died in the bombing of German cities later on in the war and the homefront never cracked, the social fabric never broke down. And after bombing raids people’s social lives quickly, then re-established within the physical devastation of that city. And so people are remarkably resilient in the face of ongoing threats and a social example, is the bombing of cities that went on for a continual three years. I mean, there was no evidence at any point that the home front ever cracked, which was the stated campaign behind the massive bombing of German cities. It never actually happened.

Do you know how all these decisions are made by MP’s? We keep being told it’s guided by the science, which is quite generic, isn’t it? Do you think that’s enough being talked about from like a psychiatry point of view?

No. And it’s something that we’ve talked about that they do seem to have a selective and skewed interpretations. And I suppose the problem with this outbreak is that you’ve got many different scientists to talk to. You’ve got the virologists; you’ve got the epidemiologists to talk about the physical viral load in the spread of the disease. But also, when you’re looking at lockdown measures, that’s human behaviour. So, you then need to consult with social psychologist, social scientists about whether or not people will adhere to it. And one concern that we had was that they seem to be having an overemphasis on an area of psychology called nudge psychology, which many psychologists, myself included, are quite critical of because it’s ethically quite dubious. It relies on subtly manipulating people. But the evidence for its effectiveness is actually quite limited in the areas of social psychology I use would very much say if you want people to comply with messages rather than trying to unconsciously manipulate them. It’s much better to have them consciously identified with the message and they buy into it because they genuinely believe in it that, rather than being subtly manipulated into doing something they don’t realise, which is nudge psychology. So yes, I think there could be a broader spread of the messages that are taken on board by politicians. And it is a bit skewed and unfortunately that’s a political decision that they are advised by science. But the advice that they take up and listen to is a political decision. And for example, in the Guardian today, there was talk by a scientist saying that the government acted too late on the advice that they were given. And unfortunately, we might see the effects of that in a high fatality rate compared to other countries that lock down earlier.

Yeah. One of the government’s advisers, Professor Neil Fergusson believes a level of social distancing will be needed until there is a vaccine. Maybe not the measures that we have now, but if there is better testing, contact tracing, there could be some leeway. But that could take 18 months or so until we even see a vaccine. So, what long term effect could that have on people? Because, you know, do people need to get used to the fact that we’re not going back to normal anytime soon?

Yeah, it’s a big issue and there will be new social norms to adhere to like things we are used to doing shaking hands, hugging, kissing on the cheek and the in the new kind of post covid social norms that might be problematic. I think specifically, I’ve had discussions with friends who go to concerts because I used to go to alot of concerts before the lockdown. And that’s a big discussion going on about when, if ever are we going to see large concerts and festivals and the NME ran a story last week that it may not be till October 2021, that large scale festivals and concerts come back in because how do you social distance in a concert at Wembley Stadium? Is it realistic to expect people to stay 2 metres apart? And if they did do that the social value that people get to be close to other people that are enjoying the same music. That is obviously going to be negatively affected if you are one meter away from everybody. So, there is a lot of different things to consider about it and how it goes and how we deal with it is anyone’s guess. I suppose from my point of view as a social psychologist, I would say that whatever norms developed from this in this post-Covid world, if it’s accepted, that that’s the kind of a necessary thing to do to prevent new spikes of infection and to keep people and themselves safe, the wearing of masks and things like that, and new gestures of greeting people. I mean, I’ve found one thing that I was doing recently before- the elbow bump or you you touch feet with each other instead of shaking hands. So it may be that we say new norms of interaction. And yes, it’s a very interesting question to see how it will go. But yes, I think it will have massive impacts with how we socially interact.

I mean, you talk about concerts and festivals and how that could take ages until we see them come back. How premature is it then for, you know, sporting events to talk about even starting again in the coming months or later this year? Because the same situation, when those bodies are talking about possibilities of putting everything on from October onwards. Surely, they are in exactly the same situation as music?

Yeah. It’s again, it’s an interesting question how they do that. So, I don’t know it would be for them to decide. One possible thing, this would have a massive effect- is that if you have a large football stadium like the AMEX, maybe a possible way to do it, would be reduce numbers of people coming in so you can still socially distance people sitting in there and people are two seats apart from everybody else. Again, that will have a massive impact on the social experience because the atmosphere of being in a tightly packed, crowded when everyone’s around you and everyone jumps up when there’s a goal and sitting at 2 metres away from everybody else, that’s not going to be as enticing. I suppose it’s possible as well they might play the matches to just closed stadiums and not invite people in and screen them. But then again, you have the issue which is pre lockdown was there was a concern that if you have the matches behind closed doors and you screen them out, people watch them in pubs the risk of covid transmission in a small pup rather than a large outdoor Stadium, are far, far higher. So, all of these things are going to have to be considered.

If, as is predicted, measures are eased but not lifted. So, we sort of work backwards from how the measures were brought in. I think that’s kind of how people may be thinking it might happen. Is there a possibility we sort of see the opposite to the panic buying? We see too many crowds will gather when they’re being advised to have some sort of level of physical distance because we’ve all been cooped up for so long by that point.

I don’t think they would do that completely unconsciously, uncritically. People may choose to identify with certain types of people, but I’m not aware that there’s any kind of inherent propensity for people to seek out crowds. The crucial thing which is what myself and other people look at is the degree of identification. Say, for example, a work colleague did on spacing and distancing within crowds found that people will tolerate higher crowd density if they identify with the crowd. For example, if you’re in a packed crowd a gig or a festival, you won’t consider that an aversive experience. Whereas if you’re in a packed commuter train trying to get into work, you have no psychological connection with people around you. You’re much more likely to report an aversive experience. So, I don’t think people will seek out crowds. But if, for example, we say you have a concert goer who hasn’t been to a concert for six months because of covid and then one of their bands they are playing, for example, Manic Street Preachers putting on 2 stadium gigs and Cardiff to thank the NHS, hopefully post lockdown. I can see that people will want to go to that because it will be an experience that they’ve been missing. But obviously, someone who doesn’t like Manic Street Preachers probably wouldn’t want to.

We are actually seeing Fatboy Slim doing the same thing at Brighton Centre for NHS Workers as a local example of that happening as well in October. So that could happen.

They probably won’t let him do another gig at Brighton Beach.

You’re right. That’s a whole other conversation, I’m sure. Now, with your training background – the lockdown could have negative effects on people’s mental health and that creates other problems. What do you think? How big an impact could that have? If it goes on for a longer time?

Yes, it is a concern. In my particular area of clinical interest that I worked in with vulnerable children and adolescents. If there are children that are problematic and complicated family situations, if there is domestic violence and substance abuse, being in lockdown can be an issue for mental health and also physical health and safe guarding issues. And so, yes, it is a real concern. I don’t currently work in the area anymore, but colleagues that do are very concerned about that at the moment. And I think what they’ll probably be thinking about switching to more remote forms of therapeutic intervention. So, for example, I know colleagues are looking at now doing Skype therapeutic interventions because at the moment they can’t be face to face. Maybe that will be easier for young people because they tend to be technically literate and they will find it easier to have therapeutic intervention over Skype and zoom than say an adult who is less technologically literate. So, it might be more easy for people to engage with these new norms depending on their age, demographic and their levels of technical literacy. But it’s a clear concern. There are real physical effects, for example, of increased alcohol consumption. People are drinking more at home there is concerns about that long-term effects of that and the consequent social effects of drunken behaviour. If there are family dynamics in the house so yes, there’s a whole raft of things that we don’t honestly know how it’s going to bear out, how long it’s going to last for. But yes, I can say that there’s going to be a lot of work for those that work in psychiatry, mental health and wellbeing to see how they can help people deal with long term consequences of this. Yes.

Do you think that might influence some of the decisions about lifting these measures?

I don’t honestly know.

What would you do?

It’s a very tough one, because you don’t want to just get into a simple numbers game of saying, okay. So, if we do lock down and that will prevent a certain number of people dying from covid, you then have the unintended consequence. And I’ve seen, for example, in the Guardian, an increase in domestic violence related murders going on, there is a spike in that. I would guess that’s less than the amount of people that would die from covid. That’s an awful situation to get into because you don’t want to trade one against the other. So, it’s a very, very difficult situation to manage. And I wouldn’t want to be the person that did because both of those are tragedies.

The final sort of a negative slant on this one. We sort of touched on it already with the press. But at the moment, we’re seeing daily calls from journalists and opposition MP’s to find out what the so-called exit strategy is. Does that in itself cause more negativity towards the lockdown, potentially, because as humans we need to know roughly what the path is ahead of us?

It’s a good question, and I should say, I mean, it’s not an area that I am that expert in but I do know, for example, colleagues that work in military psychiatry, where they’ve done work with people in active service. They found that being honest with people-so for people who were in active combat situations, who want to know when they’re going to get out of it. Giving them false hope and saying we’ll be out in a week and then that’s not being true, is far worse than being honest with them and saying we do not honestly know. So, I think you can be honest with people. You can say we’re not sure how long this is going to go on for, if you impress upon them the need of why they need to do it. It’s not to say that you then don’t need to think about a possible exit strategy. Whether or not the discussion of exit strategies will then cause people to be more fatigued is an open question. My hunch would be if you are open with people that you do not know when the lockdown will end. And that’s within any discussion about exit strategies. I Think people will be able to cope with the ambiguity. So, I don’t think it’s irresponsible to talk about exit strategies. But obviously, if we’re still in the middle of a lockdown, the priority of the message and the social norms is for the moment. Unfortunately, we still need to adhere to it. What I think is most likely this won’t be my decision nor my expertise, but I guess that they won’t be a complete break of the lockdown. It will be phased and it will be gradual, which is what they’re doing in Denmark, allowing the less vulnerable groups, young people to go back to nursery and things like that. So that, I think, would be what any lockdown looks like. Well, in the end, it will be phased. It won’t stop in 1 go. So, the idea that at some point in three weeks’ time they’ll go, okay, that’s it. You’ve done all your work. Well done. Go back to normal as you were before. I think that’s not going to happen. I’m being honest about that. I don’t think it would be harmful. I think people will understand that we can’t go completely back to the way things were before in one swoop.

Let’s end this conversation with a bit more positivity. You’ve touched on the fact that we are seeing communities come together a bit more, aren’t we? We’re seeing a sort of a sense of solidarity that we are all in this together everyone is talking to their neighbours a bit more. You know, a good morning, to someone on your daily exercise or in the shop. It’s a lot more friendly out there at the moment?

And it’s one thing that I’ve noticed in the research that myself and other people have done on mass emergencies. You get a remarkable amount of solidarity and cooperation and people ready to come together. And I know it’s used in a rhetorical way by politicians saying we’re all in this together, but there is also empirical evidence to show that people do come together. The starkest example I often use is we researched 7/7 and before 7/7 happened we were asked by journalists; in what crowds might people behave anti-socially? What crowd might it be difficult for people to come together and get this solidarity?  Well, if you’re in a packed crowd where you’re in a physical mass but, you’ve got no psychological connection with people, then maybe it would be more difficult for that solidarity to emerge. And the journalist said well what kind of crowd would that be? I said well, a packed commuter train, in rush hour. People don’t talk to each other. You might see that. I’m pleased to say that we were completely proved wrong in that theory, because in 7/7, this solidarity emerged straight away, so people, before the incident happened had no connection with each other- people don’t talk to each other. Suddenly then cooperate with each other massively. And it’s not that everyone behaves like lions and heroes. As you say, it’s the small, mundane things. It’s what we call the oil, the wheels, the social cohesion, and it’s the standing back. It’s the comforting someone. It’s saying are you okay? It’s passing the bottle of water and finding where there was someone trained in first aid that could come and help that person and comforting people holding their hand while they’re dying. That happened in 7/7. So, it’s all these mundane things that are all part of a much bigger picture. And yes, I think that’s one very positive thing about this outbreak, is that it’s showing people’s inherent cooperation when need be. People do come out and they are there for each other. And that can be a very reassuring thing. In these incidents and every Thursday night, people stand on the street. It happens in my street and clap the NHS. It’s a very powerful thing it moves people to tears.

Because this could last for such a long time. Could this have a positive long-term effect then on how we also behave as a community?

It’s a good question and it’s something we often get asked is how long does this cooperation last? Does just during the incident itself? Or when the danger and the threat has receded, will there be an ongoing residual sense of cooperation? I think in this situation, because I was talking with emergency planning colleagues last night about it, this emergency is unusual in that everybody is affected. Previous instances a terrorist attack somewhere. A location is affected and people might feel a sense of sympathy or connection with it. But in this situation, we really all in a similar boat. We are all locked down at home talking to each other via Skype. And so that may mean that the bond that is brought from this will last longer because everyone will share that. It wouldn’t just be a fleeting thing that you saw an instant when you were in it together and then you move away from the incident. So, yes, I think there is a real chance that this bond will last. But we shall see it’s an open question. I hope so.

We see extraordinary appreciation of the NHS, shop workers, post office workers, and some extreme generosity and extraordinary achievements as well. I mean, twelve million pounds raised for the NHS, by captain Tom. I mean, just incredible, really. And I guess you wouldn’t see these in a normal situation?

Yeah. If you don’t have that sense of connection, cooperation with other people is less likely. And there’s many different studies have shown that about how and when by standards, intervene. If people don’t feel a sense of psychological connection with the people in need, they are much less likely to intervene. So, the crucial thing is not bystanders don’t help us, they can help. But how do we encourage the situations to make them help, this current epidemic does give the opportunity to do that? Because getting back to what I said, we are all affected. So, we all have the same shared experience. We are all locked down. And so, we all understand and empathise with each other’s situation.

Really interesting stuff. Thanks so much. We end every podcast with the following questions away from work yourself and your job. Just to get to get to know our guests a bit better. Our first question is what advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t be cross with the compromises that your older self may make in the work he does in getting his message across.

If you could pick any subject to study at the University of Brighton, what would it be?

Politics or philosophy. Because I always feel that I missed out on that side of my studies.

Ok. Pick a favourite place in Sussex.

Castlehill Nature reserve.

And let’s pretend that all measures are out the way at the moment. If you could give visitors to Brighton and the area a tip of what to do and experience for a weekend or something, what would that be?

I’d say hang out in the lanes or a cafe in the lanes and sit there and watch the world go by. Because that will give you a really good idea of what Brighton is about.

Tell us something interesting about you, which a lot of people may not know.

During the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. I happened to be there on holiday and it all kicked off around us and we found ourselves in this castle in a town on the coast where the Monty Python life of Brian was filmed. So, we had this bizarre situation where there was a Full-On riot going on at the bottom of the castle. So, when I was filming the crowd destroying seafront properties that belong to the hated president. And then we realised we were standing in the very spot where Terry Jones from Monty Python did his speech. He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy, which was quite a bizarre situation to be in.

Yeah. Very strange emotions at that point, I imagine. If you could pick three people to invite to a dinner party?

Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Guy Debord. Sigmund Freud Father of Psychoanalysis. Karl Marx, the author of Das Kapital and Guy Debord the author of The Society of the Spectacle. I think it would be quite fun to pore myself a bottle of wine and sit back and watch them spar with each-other.

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Kerry Burnett • April 30, 2020

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