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Wombles, lock downs, and lessons for organisations

This week we are going to talk about why a hard lockdown was inevitable, and we will explore what lessons organisations can learn from exploring COVID-19 from a social psychology viewpoint, using something called the Commons Dilemma.

Most people these days hear the word Wimbledon and they naturally think of tennis. But those of us in the UK over a certain age, (that most excellent age where your face looks distinguished and your body has assumed the appearance of comfort) will remember The Wombles. A popular kid’s TV show about a family of furry-looking talking animals, who lived underneath Wimbledon Common.

For those who don’t know, a ‘Common’ is a large outdoor space. You may have heard of the saying ‘common ground’ which refers to people with different opinions trying to find some points of agreement. But, hundreds of years ago the common people – those who did not own land, were each allowed to put a limited number of livestock on common land, known as the ‘Common’.

Commons Dilemma

In social psychology there is something called the Commons Dilemma. According to the Dilemma, there is a problem with sharing the common land: individuals are tempted to act in their own short-term interests and put more than their fair share of animals on the land; with the result that the land becomes overgrazed and the system fails.

A quick reflection on the Commons Dilemma can explain why we’ve seen panic buying and why, despite an initial softly, softly approach, fines have been introduced for violating social isolation rules. An understanding of the Commons Dilemma can have powerful lessons for organisations.

Why have we seen panic buying and people not socially isolating? Giving the answer “well that’s down to people acting out of self-interest” is a grossly simple explanation, which could lead to us to thinking that people are selfish and antisocial: Full stop. But such simplistic answers are not helpful.

If we think that vast swathes of the population have fixed personalities that motivate them to raise a defiant middle finger to the rest of society, then that is a rather defeatist and negative point of view – if that were the case then we would be in a tricky situation with not much hope that we can change behaviour and influence people to act responsibly.

Let’s try and take a more insightful view. Picture Paul the Peasant sneaking down to the Common in the dead of night with a sheep under his arm, that he bought from a neighbouring village. Although he already has his maximum allotted number of sheep on the common, he reasons “it’s only one more sheep, and there’s acres and acres of land – what harm can it cause?” At that point he is under the illusion that his actions are unique, and the effect is negligible. A short time later he gets another deal on a cheap sheep. He sneaks down to the common, again in the dead of night. As he is walking through the common, he hears “Is that you Paul?”, he recognises the voice, and responds “is that you John?”. It turns out that John is there to put a sheep on the common too, and he says that last week he met Ringo and George there as well; and the whole village is putting extra animals on the Common! At this point Paul starts to think “everyone else is doing it, and perhaps I need to get as many sheep on here as I can, get them fat and get them sold, before someone stops us using the Common”. Here Paul sees what he thinks is normal behaviour (everyone else is doing it). He is concerned with being disadvantaged if he doesn’t conform and do what he thinks everyone else is doing.

Panic Buying

Let’s explore panic buying in light of the Common’s Dilemma. At the beginning of the crisis, when the pasta, bread and toilet roll shelves were relatively well stocked people would be buying a little extra thinking that their singular actions would not have too much of an overall effect (it’s only…what harm can it cause?). Pretty soon it became obvious that there were lots and lots of people stocking up (everyone else is doing it) and despite officials saying it was selfish and not necessary (Australian Prime Minster, Scott Morrison went as far as saying panic buying was “Un-Australian”), because vast amounts of society were stocking up, it was seen as normal and necessary. The truth is, that until people could see that the shelves were being replenished fast enough to keep up with demand, people would not take the risk of being disadvantaged and going hungry.

Social Isolation

The softly softly approach to social isolation was doomed to fail, particularly in the early days when Covid-19 was seen as uncommon, just a little worse than winter flu and only dangerous to the old and people with underlying health conditions. When the government first asked the public to socially isolate, people were still seeing others around them going to the park, the pub, the yoga classes etc. The underlying social cue was (everybody else is doing it) carry on as normal – which was reinforced by seeing Members of Parliament packed into the chamber, whilst telling the rest of us to isolate. It was inevitable that a more stringent lockdown would happen with fines to try and enforce people to stay at home. Even now it is no surprise that occasionally people are gathering to play football or buy non-essential items like house paint from DIY stores or visiting a holiday home, viewing these activities as insignificant in the grand scheme of things (it’s only…what harm can it cause?).

Organisational Behaviour

So, what can organisations learn from observing social behaviours during COVID-19?

Rules and Roll-Out

In an organisational environment consider if what you want people to do should be governed by rules with consequences for non-compliance, or if you are going to issue guidance. For example while you might want to offer guidance and encouragement so people partake in your continuous improvement programme, you might introduce a firm rule which demands a reverse parking policy to be followed, with clearly defined consequences for people who

continually park nose-first.

Consider how you will roll a programme out; do you start softly softly before being more demanding? It might very well be that the British Government knew that a hard lockdown was inevitable, but they knew that introducing a hard lockdown risked people taking to the streets in rebellion, and deep social unrest at the loss of liberty. Do you need to introduce the reverse parking policy and give people time to establish the habit, rather than immediately removing car parking privileges?

Transparency and Importance

Adults are sense-making creatures, and unless they see a clear reason and advantage for doing something, they are unlikely to adopt a new behaviour. As the number of COVID- 19 cases has dramatically risen people have realised the importance of socially isolating. If you want people to act in a particular way you have to let them know why it is important to do so, and why it is important now. For example, if you want workers to wear protective gloves, let them know how many finger injuries happen in your company or industry and how many injuries you estimate can be prevented. Too often organisations introduce rules or require behaviours with no rationale or reasoning and wonder why workers do not comply.


When we see others do something, we are likely to do it ourselves. Consider once more a new reverse parking policy, what approach is going to have the most impact, the newly painted signs in the car park saying ‘reverse parking only’ or the direction that the cars are actually parked in? Your signs are likely to be ineffective if someone drives into the car park, sees the signs but all the cars are parked nose first – that person is likely to take their cue from the actual behaviour of the other drivers and park nose first also (everybody else is doing it). The good news is that conformity also works in a positive direction, after a short time of promoting your parking policy most people will start reverse parking, and then when it seems that most other people are following the policy, there is a snowballing effect, so violations of the policy will be rare. If you do find some people not participating, the most likely reason is that they think that their non-compliance is not a big deal (it’s only…what harm can it cause?). In which case a gentle reminder such as a flyer under the windscreen wiper with the amount of injuries or accidents prevented through reverse parking might be enough.


So, there we have it, the commons dilemma can provide valuable lessons on predicting and guiding human behaviour. And if you are over 40 and were born in the UK…"Remember you’re a Womble!"

This blog is for education purposes and may be freely shared with attribution.

Dr.Jared Dempsey is the Director of Kognivate.

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