Why we don’t respect rules

With the spread of Covid-19  we were asked to follow some rules that would help contain the contagion to protect our and others health. Today it seems that the greatest ally of this virus, the one that allows it to continue to spread with still considerable numbers, is us, or rather the behavior of those of us who decide not to follow the rules.

It seems impossible to have forgotten the deaths of recent months, the despair of relatives who were not even allowed to greet them, yet today there are those who scale down or even deny, against all logic, the actual extent of this pandemic.

What the rules are for

The rules reduce the chaos present in the environment that surrounds us and give security. They allow us to adapt to social life and allow the development of relationships because they define respect. Acquiring the rules, therefore, means becoming concrete, positive people, and developing a feeling of security.

It is often the youngest who transgress the rules, with the typical tendency of adolescents not to become aware of the danger, to feel immune and omnipotent, as it is already proper to the particular evolutionary phase. Adolescence is by definition the desire and the attempt to break the rules, a way to test the limit and to walk their way to independence.

Anyway, we all sometimes have happened to transgress some rules, in a more or less serious way, sometimes even those rules that we considered right or that we normally agreed to follow.

How is it possible to reconcile behavior other than that which is considered right and appropriate? Doing something that we ourselves evaluate as incorrect makes us feel bad, guilty, negatively affects our self-esteem, and makes us lean for a negative idea of ourselves.

To prevent this from happening, people tend to justify behaviors that do not correspond to their values in different ways, calling them mechanisms of “moral disengagement”. They come into play as soon as we decide to transgress and support a kind of disconnection between moral judgment and conduct. In particular, they may concern:

– a new interpretation of behavior, which becomes understandable or even appropriate,

– a distortion of the cause ratio – effect

– a different assessment of the victim, which assumes different connotations until it itself becomes the cause of the actual situation

New research by La Sapienza University in Rome

During the Lockdown it was clear that despite the concern about the spread of the epidemic and the suggestions of the experts it was difficult to respect the quarantine, to maintain the distance and in general to take the precautions imposed by the government.

Yet the fact that many have transgressed the rules is not entirely surprising. Many psychological studies have long shown how difficult it is for people to comply with the rules, especially when they are imposed from outside and are based on moral principles not always easy to understand.

Now, a study published on Frontiers of Psychology, coordinated by Professor Guido Alessandri of La Sapienza University in Rome, allowed to identify moral disengagement and generalized trust in others as crucial factors mediators and moderators of a more or less respectful behavior.

During the first phase of the lockdown, between 22 March and 6 April, the researchers submitted a sample of 1520 subjects from all over Italy to a questionnaire in which they had to declare the frequency with which they left home at the beginning of that period and if they had followed the rules imposed by the government. In this way, it was possible to trace the psychological profile of those who more than others reported having transgressed, ignored, or otherwise had difficulty in conforming to the rules.

What the research tells us about rules

It turns out that a fundamental role is played by the personality of individuals that can determine behavioral choices by influencing the tendency to morally disengage,  that is to ignore the rules without showing discomfort, shame, or remorse coming to find a full justification of their actions. Those who had higher levels of social disengagement reported that they had more frequently violated the rules of isolation or distancing.

In addition to moral disengagement, the provision appears to be related to the level of general social confidence. The perception that the others around us are also striving to respect the rules is a further crucial element in encouraging compliance with the rules so much so that in some cases the influence of moral disengagement on non-compliance with the rules is diminished.

According to the propensity of people to moral disengagement, trust in others and especially in government are powerful incentives or disincentives to respect the rules. They represent fundamental psychological levers that in the advanced stages of pandemic management increasingly rely on individuals’ self-regulatory abilities and less and less on the strict regulation of their behavior imposed by the rules.


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