How behavioural insights can help tackle COVID-19

Connected society 22 March 2020 Evelina Gunnarsson Gabriella Stuart

Disinfecting hands. Stockpiling toilet paper. Staying at home. The coronavirus spreads at fast pace. As do the implications on people’s lives - and irrational conduct from citizens has caught a lot of media-attention. In this article, two of our behavioural insights experts explain why we act as we do and how behavioural science is applied to help tackle COVID-19.

Expert columns
7 mins

Is your fridge or cupboard full of food? Of toilet paper even? Just in case. Have you rolled your eyes at people doing truly irrational things these days? You are not alone. Or maybe you are… You get the point.

At a glance, behavioural sciences seem quite different from medical sciences. However, combining the two might create a perfect antidote to COVID-19. In this article we apply a behavioural insights perspective on the rising pandemic.

Governments, health care workers, epidemiologists and policymakers are working around the clock to ease the transmission of COVID-19. A key factor to restrict the spread of the virus is to understand and explain human behaviour, why behavioural scientists all over the world are actively working to identify, analyse and target behavioural aspects relevant to the disease. For example, behavioural insights are applied to develop interventions that encourage individuals to enact important behaviours (e.g. handwashing and physical distancing) and to explain people’s psychological and behavioural responses to the corona pandemic.

How behavioural insights can explain the way we act during the corona pandemic

Behavioural science research can help us understand the causes of many behaviours that have been witnessed over the last weeks. Decades of research in fields such as psychology and behavioural economics have shown that the way people behave is surprisingly often influenced by systematic biases, which can make us act in irrational ways. If we become better at incorporating behavioural insights in governments and organisations, this can facilitate the implementation of policies that will be effective in encouraging citizens to do the ‘right thing’. For instance, in the United Kingdom the government has appointed a scientific advisory group, which includes behavioural science experts.

Human judgment, decision-making and behaviour are influenced by complex interactions in the brain. During times of uncertainty and threat it is common to experience fear, which is an evolutionary response with the purpose of keeping us safe.

When we identify a threat, such as a virus that we know little about, it can trigger a fight or flight response, which makes us prepared to escape or face the threat. However, due to the different mechanisms that guide and direct our behaviours, our brains are not always capable of generating proportionate responses to external events.

Consumption patterns and stockpiling 

Consider this now famous example that has attracted a lot of interest lately. Over the past few days individuals have been stockpiling essential products such as canned goods, hand soap, dried rice and perhaps surprisingly – toilet paper. 

Looking solely at stockpiling from a behavioural insight perspective it is merely a symptom of the anxiety people experience in a time of uncertainty.  
There are several reasons for why many of us buy more food and other products than we currently need:

- Conflicting messages in public and social media regarding food supply and the seriousness of the virus create uncertainty, which in turn creates anxiety and fear.

- Humans are social creatures and we tend to observe how other people behave to determine what is safe, what is dangerous and, consequently, follow the behaviour of others (this is called social proof).

- We are sensitive to scarcity and are afraid to make the wrong decisions. If we see empty shelves in supermarkets, in the news or on social media, we will be more likely to stockpile ourselves, so that we don’t regret not taking the opportunity when we had the chance.

- At times of uncertainty and anticipatory anxiety we become more self-centred than we normally are and are therefore inclined to purchase larger amounts of groceries and toilet paper without thinking about its potential consequences (e.g. people who run out and might truly need those products).

Public health messages that only focus on arousing fear often do little to motivate action

- Evelina Gunnarsson, Senior Consultant

3 tips for policymakers or decision-makers to effectively influence people’s behaviour during the COVID-19 outbreak

To encourage people to act in a desired way, policymakers and organisations can keep three things in mind. If applied correctly, they will reduce uncertainty among citizens and promote desired behaviours:

1. Public health messages that only focus on arousing fear often do little to motivate action.
Messages with too much fear-inducing information can cause unnecessary anxiety and stress. We also know from behavioural science research that when people are overwhelmed with choices, they might end up acting as usual and hence maintaining the status quo. To mitigate these undesired effects, key messages should be combined with simple and clear steps of how to behave in the desired way. E.g. “Walk or bike instead of taking public transport whenever you can”. 

2. Transparency and clarity are important in times of uncertainty.
Be transparent by recognising the uncertainty. It is OK to let people know that the current situation is characterised by many questions. However, focus on giving information about what is known. Try to be as concrete as possible and consider translating statistics into something more relatable. E.g. instead of presenting the mortal rate of the disease, one could instead focus on how many people survive. 

3. Call it physical distancing, not social distancing. 
Key terms should be framed and chosen wisely. Social distancing is one of the key terms used and implemented in order to ease the transmission of COVID-19. Some scientists suggest that the message of keeping a social distance could pose negative psychological impacts on people’s well-being, causing them to feel loneliness and stress. Therefore, we instead suggest that this term should be reframed to “physical distancing” – on the one hand, it reminds people to keep a physical distance, while on the other hand they can still interact with each other socially (e.g. using online platforms). 

As with the preventive and political measures applied, the use of behavioural science varies from country to country. But by the look of it, many governmental agencies and organisations – and even companies – have zeroed in on behavioural science as a means of understanding and acting on human behaviour in all in forms. Thankfully, as this will be one of several important mitigation strategies to tackle COVID-19.


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