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  • Posted by Dan Coffin
  • August 21, 2020
  • Articles

Why pharma must trust the science of behaviour

Why pharma must trust the science of behaviour

In a recent interview with PME Magazine, Dan Coffin explained why the application of behavioural science will be key to better health far beyond COVID-19.

Last month, as the world began to tiptoe its way out of lockdown, a Sky News anchor declared that COVID-19 had ‘exposed behavioural science’ as ‘a load of nonsense’. The rationale? That behavioural scientists’ influence over the UK government’s COVID response caused a delay in lockdown that cost thousands of lives. The scientists’ logic was that if restrictions were imposed too early, ‘behavioural fatigue’ would soon set in and people might sleepwalk back into dangerous habits before the pandemic had peaked. Increases in road traffic that began three weeks into lockdown suggest the thinking had some merit. But the subsequent death toll – and hindsight – tell a different story. Today, months into a crisis where we’re consistently told to ‘trust the science’, the science of behaviour is under the microscope. 

However, to debate behavioural theory solely through the lens of the coronavirus – using death as the guiding metric – is to minimise its value. Human behaviour is complex, but understanding what drives it – and designing communications that encourage people to do things differently – is key to facilitating positive change. 

Dismissing behavioural science as blather – a bitter irony in Sky News’ case, given the broadcaster’s mastery of conscious bias – betrays a growing evidence base built up over decades. Behavioural science is now widely adopted. The FBI, for example, has been using it to profile and snare criminals since the 1970s, with its Behavioural Analysis Unit playing a big part in capturing serial killers like Ted Bundy and George Metesky. Similarly, the UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team claims good successes in education, welfare and healthcare.

The application of behavioural science in health has never been more important. In the absence of a treatment or vaccine, behaviour change remains our best hope of thwarting COVID-19. But achieving it on a global scale was always going to test the science; if changing individual behaviour is difficult, reprogramming the habits of entire populations is practically impossible. Those challenges were evident as the world went into quarantine – and they’re at the heart of the battle as we slowly fight our way out. 

Behavioural ‘nudges’ will be key to preventing a second spike, with everything from hand hygiene and haircuts to workplace safety and contact tracing all relying on the right behaviours. But evidence from past pandemics shows that, when the peak has passed, it doesn’t take long for people to return to their old ways. With COVID-19, short-term behaviour change won’t be enough.

Behavioural theory had a life BC – Before COVID – but its principles are currently centre stage as we journey through the pandemic. So what does the COVID experience tell us, and what can pharma learn from it to ensure interventions drive health improvements far beyond the crisis? I spoke to six experts in behavioural science in healthcare to find out more.

Read the full article in PME Magazine »

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