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To change people’s behavior, we need to frame coronavirus as a collective rather than an individual threat

How do we persuade people who don’t seem to understand that danger — or feel it is their personal right to ignore it — to change their conduct?
Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash
How do we persuade people who don’t seem to understand that danger — or feel it is their personal right to ignore it — to change their conduct?

Despite pleas from health officials during the current coronavirus pandemic to practice “social distancing” and avoid public gatherings, many Americans — including prominent politicians — have been ignoring the warnings, packing themselves into crowded bars, restaurants, beaches, gyms and other public spaces.

News reports and photos of such behavior can invoke frustration and anger in those of us who understand how contagious COVID-19 is and how much danger it poses for the more vulnerable members of our communities (primarily the old and the immunocompromised).

But how do we persuade people who don’t seem to understand that danger — or feel it is their personal right to ignore it — to change their conduct?

‘A matter of heart’

“It’s tempting to try to beat them down with facts,” writes science writer Jane Hu in an article for Slate. “But getting them to follow through on hand-washing or social distancing isn’t necessarily a matter of logic — it’s a matter of heart.”

“We’d be wise to leverage what we know about the irrational ways in which humans think and act, and what we might do to mitigate those challenges,” she adds.

We already know from previous research that people are more likely to get a flu shot if they perceive themselves at high risk of getting infected or if getting the shot will lessen their worries about getting sick. The same appears true when it comes to following advice about lowering the risk of becoming infected with coronavirus.

Writes Hu:

While scientists are just beginning their studies on coronavirus attitudes, there’s some early evidence that perceived risk is correlated with action. Gretchen Chapman, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, says that she ran a quick pilot study asking people what they were doing to reduce their risk, and those who assessed lower risks associated with coronavirus reported they were washing their hands less. (This risk assessment also appears to be tied to political beliefs as well. Chapman says Donald Trump supporters in her study gave lower assessments of risk, and another survey from Quinnipiac University found that Republicans were generally less concerned about the virus than Democrats.)

It appears then that simply telling people COVID-19 is highly contagious will not be enough get some people to change their behavior, particularly if they believe the situation is overblown or a political “hoax.”

A more effective strategy may be to stress that each of us is responsible for the health of others — the idea, says Hu, that “our collective action could slow the spread of the virus and protect more vulnerable members of the community.”

Of course, that approach may not work either, as Hu explains:

Whether that appeal to the community is effective depends on people’s worldview. The extent to which people are willing to make sacrifices in their own daily routines is inevitably tied up with people’s beliefs about helping others, according to Chapman. “If you worldview is that you’re always asked to make sacrifices and you never get anything out of it, maybe you don’t want to comply with this request,” she says. “But if you have a worldview that tells you it’s important to help others, then maybe you’re happy to make these sacrifices.”

Collectivize instead of personalize

Still, framing COVID-19 as a collective rather than an individual threat will give us our best chance at getting people to change their risky behavior during the crisis, argue British social psychologists Stephen Reicher and John Drury.

“The commonsense assumption, which is reflected in the advice being handed out to the public, is that the way to change behaviour is to appeal to individual interests,” they write in an online article for The Psychologist, a publication of the British Psychological Society. “To make sure people take notice, personalize the message: ‘change your behavior so that you will survive.’ Surely that makes sense? Well no. It is precisely the wrong thing to do.”


“Our own research on emergencies shows that it is precisely when people stop thinking in terms of ‘I’ and start thinking in terms of ‘we’ — more technically, when they develop a sense of shared social identity — that they start to coordinate, support each other and ensure that the neediest get the greatest help,” they explain. “Sometimes this sense of shared identity emerges by the very fact of experiencing a common threat. But messaging also matters. When a threat is framed in group rather than individual terms, the public response is more robust and more effective.

That’s why, say Reicher and Drury, we need to collectivize rather than personalize the coronavirus response:

The key issue is not so much “will I survive” as “how do we get through it”. The emphasis must lie on how we can act to ensure that the most vulnerable amongst us are protected and losses to the community are minimised — after all, from a collective perspective, a loss to one is a loss to all.

If framed in this way, then it becomes important for everyone to wash their hands and cover their coughs because of the implications for others as well as for themselves. Moreover, while we might have a right to take risks for ourselves, we have a moral obligation to avoid imposing risks on others (especially those who are vulnerable and connected to us — just think how your driving changes when you have children in the car). Both of these considerations are powerful motivators of action.

What is more, once certain actions become communal issues subject to collective norms, then violating them invokes collective pressure. The best way to stop people going out when unwell or demanding resources they need less than others is not simply to change internal motivations but also to mobilise external disapproval. The feverish person who goes to work, the fit young person demanding access to A&E will be best dissuaded when the community comes together to make clear that these are not acceptable behaviours.

“In this sense,” they add, “perhaps coronavirus is a powerful wake-up call.”

FMI: You can read Hu’s article on Slate’s website. You can read Reicher and Drury’s article on The Psychologist’s website.

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