By Kristina Murphy, Harley Williamson, Elise Sargeant and Molly McCarthy

This brief is based on the following article: Murphy, K., Wiliamson, H., Sargeant, E., & McCarthy, M. (2020). Morals, duty or risk?: Examining predictors of compliance with COVID-19 social distancing restrictions. Griffith Criminology Institute: Griffith University. Unpublished Manuscript. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.17636.60809

1. What problem does your research address? Why is this significant?

On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) a global pandemic. Governments worldwide have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with mandatory ‘social distancing’ restrictions. Compliance with these restrictions has the potential to limit the spread of Coronavirus and reduce deaths. At time of writing over 5-million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed worldwide, and more than 330,000 people have died from the virus. This paper examines the factors that predict compliance with mandatory ‘social distancing’ restrictions in Australia.

2. How did you conduct your research?

Our paper reports the findings from a Facebook survey of 1,595 Australians conducted 5-weeks after mandatory social distancing restrictions were introduced in Australia. Participants were asked to report on their level of compliance with social distancing restrictions including those associated with travel, shopping and leaving the house for non-essential reasons. We compared the effect of known criminological predictors of compliance, specifically the risk of sanction, personal morality, duty to obey authorities, and trust in authorities. We also drew on the public health literature to compare criminology predictors of compliance to those found to be important in the public health context (eg. perceived severity of COVID-19; perceived risk of catching COVID-19; personal anxiety).

3. What are your major findings?

Our results show that a substantial proportion of Australians surveyed did not comply fully with the ‘social distancing’ restrictions. The full compliance rate (i.e., those who responded they had ‘never’ engaged in this activity in the past week) for each of the five COVID-19 restrictions were as follows: (1) socialised in person with friends/relatives you don’t live with (49.7%); (2) left the house without a really good reason (54.5%); (3) travelled for leisure (60.4%); (4) went shopping for essential or non-essential items with COVID-19 symptoms (94.1%); and (5) went shopping for non-essential items when healthy (42.8%).

When predicting compliance with ‘social distancing’ restrictions we found that women were more likely than men to abide by the restrictions. Surprisingly, older Australians (ie. those at greater health risk from COVID-19) were not more likely to comply than younger Australians. The perceived health risk posed by COVID-19 and the perceived risk of being caught and fined by police for breaching social distancing restrictions predicted higher levels of compliance. However, personal morality (believing it is wrong to flout the restrictions) and duty to obey authorities were the stronger predictors of compliance compared to the risk of sanction or the health risk posed by COVID-19.

4. What does your research mean for policy and practice?

Authorities often rely on sanctions such as fines and arrests to enforce laws (this has also occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic to enforce social distancing restrictions). However, our findings suggest that while sanction risk predicts compliance, authorities cannot rely solely on legal sanctions to force compliance. Authorities need to continue to persuade citizens that it is both morally right to abide by the restrictions and that we all have a duty to protect those most vulnerable to the disease. In other words, people should be asked to obey the COVID-19 social distancing restrictions because they have a moral responsibility to act to protect others.


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Jackson, J., Tyler, T., Hough, M., Bradford, B., & Mentovich, A. (2015). Compliance and Legal Authority. In: J. D. Wright (ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Vol 2(4), (pp. 456-462). Oxford: Elsevier.