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How nudging can help ensure physical distancing

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University of Bayreuth, Press release No. 086/2020, 28 May 2020

Coronavirus, and no end in sight? Or maybe there is? Very gradually? Thuringia’s Premier Ramelow is keen to show the way, and wwill be relying on directives instead of bans. A research team under the direction of Prof. Dr. Claas Christian Germelmann, Chair of Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at the University of Bayreuth, is investigating how legislators can, indeed, provide assistance to citizens, for example, in maintaining social distancing. In an interview, Germelmann explains how nudging can help maintain safe distancing.

Since coronavirus became the order of the day, you have been investigating the ‘development and evaluation of nudging interventions to maintain required physical distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic’. Can you tell us the gist of this long research title?

In general, our research focuses on how consumer behaviour is influenced by context. For example, our research team is studying how small changes in the environment in which consumers make decisions can encourage positive forms of behaviour. These small prompts are called nudges. In the nudges we are researching, we are seeking to facilitate social distancing while queuing. They also help us understand how route design can work to ensure physical distancing in busy, barrier-free environments. We aim to come up with recommendations on how particular nudging interventions can be implemented in practice, for example, in the retail setting.

How did you come to investigate this topic?

While shopping, Jannike Harnischmacher and Lisa-Marie Merkl, both research assistants in the research group, as well as I myself, have observed that consumers often do not adhere to the 1.5 meter social distancing rule as recommended by the WHO, despite lines being painted on the floor of the supermarket. However, the legislator requires that shopkeepers enforce this minimum distancing, besides other precautions, to protect their customers and staff. If the shopkeeper fails to do so, they are liable to be fined. However so far, there have been no guidelines from the legislator as to which measures – we call them nudging interventions – are helpful for customers in complying with these requirements. We are therefore investigating which assistance is most effective.

What is so problematic about the adhesive strips on the floor meant to indicate the required distance?

Many shopkeepers did react promptly to the legal requirement for physical distancing at the beginning of the pandemic, and, for example, ‘drew’ spaces on the floor with strips of simple adhesive tape. However, our own observations in the run-up to the study showed that while some customers stood on the lines, others waited exactly between two lines. We saw this as an opportunity to develop measures which would be clear and easy to understand, and would 'nudge' customers towards displaying the desired behaviour.

In the title of your research you speak of ‘nudging interventions’ – what exactly do you mean by this in the context of retailing?

Already at the beginning of the pandemic, we examined the effectiveness of three nudging measures in our study, all placed on the floor of the checkout area of a supermarket: firstly, the aforementioned lines, secondly footprints, and thirdly footprints combined with signs indicating the required minimum distance of 1.5 metres. The results showed that for customers without shopping trolleys, for whom it is particularly difficult to maintain physical distancing unassisted, 63 percent of those observed were able to adhere to safe distancing in a checkout queue where footprints on the floor were combined with signs. In a queue with only lines, on the other hand, the distance was only maintained by around 34 percent. Footprints alone mean that around 49 percent of customers maintained social distancing, which is a significantly higher effect compared to lines only. A similar trend can be seen among customers with shopping trolleys. About 39 percent of this group maintained distancing assisted by footprints combined with signs, whereas only 25 percent used the spaces marked by lines correctly.


What conclusions have you drawn from your investigations?

In summary, our research results – both for customers with and without shopping trolleys – show significantly greater effectiveness for footprints combined with signs compared to lines on the floor by themselves. Based on these results we are appealing to legislators: Requirements to ensure minimum distancing between people in public spaces - and this obviously includes stores – must be accompanied by practical recommendations for action, for example, by shopkeepers.

Perhaps one last question: How would you advise Premier Ramelow in view of his easing of coronavirus measures?

We were able to show right at the beginning of the pandemic, when many consumers were still closely observing the new rules, that the most widespread measure to remind consumers of social distancing, namely simple lines on the floor, only worked for 25 percent of consumers with shopping carts, and only 34 percent of those without shopping carts. Hence, what is needed to encourage behaviour necessary for one’s own protection, such as maintaining social distancing in everyday life, are nudges that are easy to understand, that have been tested in advance for their effectiveness. It is obvious that as part of further easing, more nudges should be used as reminders of the appropriate behaviour, in order to promote individual responsibility amongst our fellow citizens.


Prof. Dr. Claas Christian Germelmann
Phone: +49 (0)175 / 62 93 797
E-Mail: c.c.germelmann@uni-bayreuth.de

Jannike Harnischmacher
Doctoral researcher
Phone: +49 (0)151 / 70 40 77 96
E-mail: jannike.harnischmacher@uni-bayreuth.de

Lisa-Marie Merkl
Doctoral researcher
Phone: +49 (0)176 / 64 22 58 97
E-mail: lisa-marie.merkl@uni-bayreuth.de

Marketing & Consumer Behaviour
University of Bayreuth

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Ralph Reindler

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