Exposure to images showing (non)adherence to physical distancing rules: Effect on adherence behavior and perceived social norms

S. Raghoebar*, J.M.J. Delnoij, B.A. Kamphorst, H. Broekhuizen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Adherence to behavioral measures such as physical distancing are key to mitigating the effects of viral pandemics such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Adherence depends in part on people’s perception of what others do (descriptive norms) or approve of (injunctive norms). This study examines the effects that exposure to images depicting people following or breaking physical distancing rules have on perceptions of descriptive and injunctive norms and subsequent adherence behavior.

An online between-subjects experiment (n=315) was conducted, in which participants were exposed to a set of five photographs of different public spaces in which people either did or did not adhere to physical distancing rules (pre-registration: https://www.osf.io/uek2p). Participants’ adherence behavior was measured using a triangulation of measures (incentivized online behavioral task, vignettes, intention measure). Perceptions of relevant social norms were also measured.

Mann-Whitney tests showed no effects of condition on perceptions of descriptive and injunctive norms or on adherence behavior. Linear regressions showed that both component paths of the indirect effect (condition on norm perceptions, and norm perceptions on adherence behavior) were non-significant, hence mediation analyses were not conducted.

Exposure to images of people following (compared to breaking) physical distancing rules did not affect adherence to such rules or perceived norms. We surmise that a single exposure to such images, especially in the context of COVID-19, is insufficient to affect behavior. We therefore recommend performing a comparable experiment in which participants are exposed repeatedly to images showing people (non)adhering to a specific behavior in a particular context for a longer period.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0276936
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 2 Nov 2022


  • adherence behavior
  • physical distancing rules
  • image exposure
  • social norms
  • COVID-19


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