Protection motivation theory and social distancing behaviour in response to a simulated infectious disease epidemic

Lynn Williams, Susan Rasmussen, Savi Maharaj, Adam Kleczkowski, Nicole Cairns

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Epidemics of respiratory infectious disease remain one of the most serious health risks facing the population. Non-pharmaceutical interventions (e.g., hand-washing or wearing face masks) can have a significant impact on the course of an infectious disease epidemic. The current study investigated whether protection motivation theory (PMT) is a useful framework for understanding social distancing behaviour (i.e. the tendency to reduce social contacts) in response to a simulated infectious disease epidemic. There were 230 participants (109 males, 121 females, mean age 32.4 years) from the general population who completed self-report measures assessing the components of PMT (Milne, Orbell & Sheeran, 2002). In addition, participants completed a computer game which simulated an infectious disease epidemic in order to provide a measure of social distancing behaviour (Maharaj, McCaldin & Kleczkowski, 2011). The regression analyses revealed that none of the PMT variables were significant predictors of social distancing behaviour during the simulation task. However, fear (β = .218, p<.001), response-efficacy (β = .175, p<.01) and self-efficacy (β = 0.251, p < 0001) were all significant predictors of intention to engage in social distancing behaviour. Overall, the PMT variables (and demographic factors) explain 21.2% of the variance in intention. The findings demonstrated that PMT was a useful framework for understanding intention to engage in social distancing behaviour, but not actual behaviour during the simulated epidemic. These findings may reflect an intention-behaviour gap in relation to social distancing behaviour.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)832-837
Number of pages6
JournalPsychology, Health and Medicine
Issue number7
Early online date2 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • infectious disease
  • social distancing
  • protection motivation
  • infectious disease control

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