A lockdown by any other name would still swell the street

Written by Dr Matt Watson, Head of Psychology Department, Teesside University, member of Centre for Applied Psychological Science, Cognition and Decision-Making theme. Email: m.watson@tees.ac.uk

We are starting the new year entering a third lockdown, something which is necessary, but unlikely to be greeted with much joy. Since the start of the pandemic epidemiology, public health, and virology have been at the forefront of the Government’s public face of science, but psychology has also played a key role. The Government’s scientific advisory group, SAGE, includes the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) which has psychologists, including Professor Susan Michie who has written about human behaviour in the pandemic (https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2020/03/11/slowing-down-the-covid-19-outbreak-changing-behaviour-by-understanding-it/), as members. Independent SAGE (https://www.independentsage.org/) has also included psychologists Professor Michie and Professor Steven Reicher and this group has commented individually on how Government policy may affect public behaviour.

At the Centre for Applied Psychological Science (CAPS) we also provided advice on behaviour to Middlesbrough Council Local Authority Outbreak Board following the end of the first lockdown in July 2020. This was to provide guidance on behaviour that would be particularly relevant at a local level and sensitive to the population of the Tees Valley. We highlighted two key themes. 1) the importance of a citizen led approach that engaged the local community, developed trust in the measures, and authorities implementing them; and 2) the importance of clear and precise communication to ensure people understand any measures they need to take.

This second theme has been emphasised throughout the pandemic as something that is important to ensure people adhere to restrictions (Michie, et al, 2020). One of the reasons is that language is a shared, agreed upon, social convention where members of a linguistic community agree upon what different words refer to. During the pandemic the most effective methods of reducing the R (the rate at which the virus is spreading through the community) value across the country have been the two lockdowns that stretched from March to July and then during the month of November. Outside of these periods the Government has used regional tiered approaches with different restrictions in different areas. These regional tiered approaches have been not as successful at reducing the R value of the virus as the national lockdown, even when measures have been almost as strict.

At least part of the success is that a single nationwide approach (at least in England) means there is only a single set of rules to understand, but another part is that the term lockdown, when used in March, established a shared understanding of what the meaning of this word was and how we should act. In psycholinguistic terms it could be viewed that there was a conceptual pact (Brennan & Clark, 1996) between the Government and everyone in the country about what is meant by the term lockdown and what behaviours a person should do when it is in place.

A conceptual pact is a tacit agreement about what a word refers to and how it is conceptualised. What this leads to, when different terminology is used to apply to the restrictions, for example, when the word lockdown isn’t used, it will not elicit the same behaviours as when the term lockdown is used. This is because the different terminology suggests a different set of restrictions are in operation and therefore different behaviours are permitted. Though the restrictions were imposed on a scale, the use or not use of lockdown, as a term, to describe them creates a binary distinction not one of scale. The term lockdown also conjures a conceptualisation of restriction and has many negative consequences, which is why the Government has avoided the term, but possibly at the expense of non-adherence. The good news, from a virus reduction perspective, is that by reusing the term lockdown the message is now much clearer and psycholinguistics tells us that the language we use to conceptualise our behaviour is important for ensuring lockdown rules are adhered to.


Michie, S., West, R., Rogers, M. B., Bonell, C., Rubin, J. G., & Almot, R. (2020). Reducing SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the UK: A behavioural science approach to identifying options for increasing adherence to social distancing and shielding vulnerable people. British Journal of Health Psychology, 25, 945-956. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjhp.12428

Brennan, S. E., & Clark, H. H. (1996). Conceptual pacts and lexical choice in conversation. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 22(6), 1482–1493. https://doi.org/10.1037/0278-7393.22.6.1482