Our longitudinal study showed that national trust was positively associated with personal and normative compliance with COVID-19 restrictions via social cohesion, at least in an Irish sample. The observed effects emerged while controlling for baseline levels of personal and normative compliance with COVID-19 restrictions (time 1), which increases our confidence in the direction of the hypothesized effects. More specifically, national trust positively and significantly predicted social cohesion, which in turn positively and significantly predicted personal and normative compliance with the restrictions. Put differently, the greater the trust in the national government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, the more that individuals felt close, understanding, and sensitive to their ingroup members, which consequently affected how they have behaved during pandemic, as well as how they perceived the behavior of their ingroup members.
The evidence presented here highlights the importance of intragroup processes, including inclusive, national social cohesion, during difficult times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In our analysis, national trust seemed to facilitate inclusive, national social cohesion, which is especially relevant to the response to the pandemic. Moreover, those results align with previous findings highlighting that greater trust in government promotes compliance with health policies, including measures relating to quarantining, testing, and restrictions on mass gatherings (Van Bavel et al., 2020). Indeed, those insights corroborate documented experiences with past epidemics, including the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014–2016 (Blair et al., 2017; Morse et al., 2016) and the SARS, avian influenza, and H1N1 pandemics (Siegrist & Zingg, 2014).
To the extent of our knowledge, our longitudinal study marks the first to demonstrate the mediating role of inclusive, national social cohesion in the relationship between national trust and COVID-19 compliance. The findings are consistent with testimonies that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought communities closer together, because it has made them more aware about the consequences and connected them to each other (e.g., Holzwarth, 2020). The findings are also consistent with the proposition that investing in national, inclusive social cohesion contributes to the formation of stronger, more connected, and more open communities that are better prepared to cope with crisis situations (Lalot et al., 2021).
The understanding suggested by our results can be explained by research in psychology, which has shown, for example, that acute stress may generate greater cooperative, social, and friendly behaviors Von Dawans et al. (2012), for example, had participants undergo a stressful situation (i.e., a public speaking activity followed by solving math equations before an audience), and subsequently play economic games that required them to make decisions about trust, sharing, and punishment. The researchers found that after performing the stressful tasks, participants were more trusting of others, behaved in more trustworthy ways, and tended to be more cooperative and prosocial. To put it another way, during difficult experiences, people appear to be willing to trust and connect with one another on a human level, and thus act decently.
The findings have practical implications for managing the COVID-19 pandemic and other future threats involving contagious diseases. For one, they emphasize that national institutions (i.e., governments) and their responses (i.e., police actions) are crucial to promoting individuals’ awareness that they learn from the pandemic, be more supportive of members of their community, and thus individually and collectively observe COVID-19 restrictions.
Beyond that, the findings emphasize the need for governments to value public trust in institutions, which should be actively cultivated via consistent, coordinated responses to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments should also actively avoid actions that undermine trust, including unexplained changes in policy directions and inequitable applications of rules. Last, for individuals who have low trust in their governments (Yamagishi, 2001), harbor various COVID-19 conspiracies (Gu et al., 2021), and/or believe that the fact that “We are all in this together” has become a cliché during the COVID-19 pandemic (McGuire et al., 2020), it is critical for governments to continue their efforts to protect the health of their populations (Edwards & Ott, 2021). The government should also pay attention to their methods of public health communication so that they do not create divisions within their nation (Maher et al., 2020), which might result in bias and hostility among the population.
Limitations and Future Directions
Despite the novelty and importance of our findings, we should acknowledge our research’s limitations and propose directions for future studies. First, a notable limitation of our study is that it was conducted in Ireland only. To counter that limitation, future studies should attempt to replicate our findings in different contexts with different populations as a means to test their generality. That effort is particularly important because the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global crisis.
Second, the large dropout of participants after Wave 1 persisted even after Wave 2, which indicates a high attrition bias. Our longitudinal study also focused only on self-reported measures of personal and normative compliance, meaning that future research should prioritize examining how trust via social cohesion influences actual and/or observed behaviors. Alternatively, experimental and qualitative research could also be useful for understanding people’s perceptions of and reactions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Third, our personal and normative compliance measures had a low level of reliability, possibly due to the existence of heterogeneous constructs such as hygiene, physical distancing, and intragroup (social) contact on the scale (Tavakol & Dennick, 2011). In fact, the reliability was higher when those constructs were examined independently. Even so, to avoid that problem, future research should focus on a particular behavior or construct.
Fourth and last, our mediation analyses also revealed that alternative models could also benefit the examination of the underlying mechanisms between the investigated constructs. Although social cohesion partly accounted for the effect of trust on both personal and normative compliance with COVID-19, our additional analyses showed that normative compliance and personal compliance are also responsible for the effect of trust on social cohesion. Future research should examine that relationship in greater detail.