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Kansas City Study: Crowded Homes Drove People To Break Social Distancing Rules

Visitors to Westport walk along Pennsylvania Ave. where the street is barricaded in the evenings.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
On a busy street in Westport, many people continued to socialize during the pandemic despite social distancing guidelines.

The coronavirus pandemic has inadvertently created a kind of large-scale social experiment that has tested how people fare when their social lives are suddenly upended.

The strain of living in crowded households may have been a large factor in breaking social distancing rules and putting health at risk during the pandemic, according to a new study involving two University of Missouri-Kansas City researchers.

While many experts speculated that isolation could test individuals' emotional well-being during the pandemic's lock-down, the new study by UMKC political science professors Debra Leiter and Beth Vonnahme, along with Jack Reilly at the New College of Florida, found the opposite is true.

“People who feel overwhelmed by those around them because they are constantly present might seek to get out and to violate social distancing,” Vonnahme said.

The researchers' newly-published article in the journal Social Sciences Quarterly was taken from an opinion survey conducted online in spring and summer of 2020. The results showed:

1.) People who live in larger households most often disagreed with and violated social distancing orders.

The researchers found that the larger the household, the more often its members would leave home, not just for work, but also to dine out, visit friends, take trips and do other “nonessential” activities. Vonnahme said the researchers were curious about whether social isolation or feeling crowded would be greater motivators to break social distancing rules.

Their findings appeared in line with a small body of research that shows how crowded living conditions affect individuals.

“People were feeling very much pinned-in,” Vonnahme explained. “You love your family, but do you really want to be with them 24/7? The answer is ‘no!’ People, in fact, needed a little bit of space from those around them.”

2.) People in crowded households were more concerned about their health risks.

People who lived in more crowded homes and violated social distancing rules seemed to understand that they were putting themselves at higher risk.

The larger the household, the more people felt concern about their health. Because these people tended to violate social distancing more frequently than people in smaller households, their assessment of being at higher risk may have been justified.

3.) Isolated people were least likely to break social distancing and least concerned about their health.

Vonnahme and her colleagues had wondered whether the strain of social isolation might drive people who live alone to venture out more, but their research found these people were least likely to go out on nonessential trips. They were also least concerned for their own health.

In regard to social distancing practices, hypothesized effects of living alone didn’t show up.

“Social isolation didn’t appear to have an effect,” Vonnahme said. “It was really this crowding.”

4.) Contrary to some commonly assumed differences, rural and urban people felt similarly about social distancing.

Rural and urban people tended to comply with social distancing at roughly similar rates, defying the researchers’ theories that rural people would be the least compliant. They found that suburban people tended to follow social distancing orders most often among the three groups.

Vonnahme thinks this is in part because suburban dwellers were more likely to have jobs that allowed them to work from home.

“In rural areas, you had people who are in these sort of non-flexible jobs where they can’t just say, ‘Well, now I’m gonna farm from my house,’ right? Or ‘Now I’m going to work in this meat-packing plant from my house.’ Or in urban areas, we also saw that same problem,” Vonnahme said.

5.) People with large online networks followed social distancing more closely.

Larger online social networks may have allowed people to remain social without having to venture outside of home or feel crowded in large households.

“Having a richer online network keeps you sort of more compliant and willing to engage in social distancing, which is distinct from having these larger in-person networks,” Vonnahme said.

6.) College-educated people were less likely to comply with social distancing orders than researchers expected.

As a university professor, Vonnahme hoped that people who had been to college would have the greatest amount of respect for science, and therefore be most likely to follow social distancing. However, these people tended to be less supportive. Vonnahme said the findings align with other research showing similar views between people with very different educational backgrounds.

“What we often find, surprisingly, is those without education and those with advanced degrees are often on the same side of an issue, which is kind of fascinating that having a college education sort of gets you a different set of ideas," Vonahhme said. "But when you get to that advanced education, you come back to those ideas similar to people without a college education.”

Vonnahme said the findings could be helpful to policy makers to inform them how people in differing living situations may respond differently to broad-based public guidelines.

As a health care reporter, I aim to empower my audience to take steps to improve health care and make informed decisions as consumers and voters. I tell human stories augmented with research and data to explain how our health care system works and sometimes fails us. Email me at alexs@kcur.org.
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