Blog: COVID 19 and behavioural science

Anthony Greenwood, March 2020

The use of behavioural science within Government is well known and well established, with the fundamental principles being widely used to affect behaviour changes at a national level. For example, they recently adopted the use of ‘defaults’ by opting everyone in to pensions and organ donation, rather than out, to increase take-up. 

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The use of behavioural science within Government is well known and well established, with the fundamental principles being widely used to affect behaviour changes at a national level. For example, they recently adopted the use of ‘defaults’ by opting everyone in to pensions and organ donation, rather than out, to increase take-up. 

At Research Partnership, the principles of behavioural science are something we have been using to inform our research design, approaches and our recommendations for a while. We use the EAST framework to help identify, inform and enable behavioural changes. The EAST framework is a way of simplifying the hundreds of biases and influences on our behaviour and essentially suggests that to enable any behavioural change it must be Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

Focusing purely on the Prime Minister’s statement to the nation on Monday, and not any other interventions (as many, such as encouraging hand washing, are well documented elsewhere - see links for particularly interesting articles at the bottom of this blog) it is clear these principles have been incorporated in his messaging about enabling the widespread change of people isolating at home for an indefinite period.

Easy

The principle here is that for any message to be resonant it needs to be simple in its nature, and simple to enact and interpret. The science behind why people should stay at home is complex but the Prime Minister tried to make his appeal as simple and as rule-based as possible. Where it became muddy was around education. Keeping schools open (for now), contradicts the overall simplicity of the message. In my mind it is a key contributor for why there is confusion around what we should all be doing at the moment i.e. If it’s fine for schools to be open why can’t I go outside? Greater transparency on this issue may help current measures.

Attractive

Self-isolation is clearly not an attractive proposition for many. Home-working may seem appealing initially (no boss, less visibility/ accountability, etc.), and the Government have done the  best they can in trying to make it a more attractive proposition by stating that people should avoid gatherings and their usual cultural pursuits, the pub, cinema, theatre, etc. i.e. by reducing the incentives to leave the house. Time will tell how things work out but I can imagine compliance to self-isolation will be difficult. Could the Government do more? For example, reducing paywalls to subscriptions like Sky TV to make being at home more enticing, particularly when reports say TV viewing is likely to rise 60% over this period. It may even be beneficial for the suppliers as potential customers may form ‘habits’ and attachments to these subscriptions which may be hard to break, and thus possibly economically viable.

Social

Social norms have a role to play in enforcing social isolation with the fear of being out of step with your peers a key means of keeping people in check. You only have to walk down the street with a mild cough to be seen as a social pariah at the moment, as contravention of these rules is socially frowned upon and highly visible. What was also noteworthy about the Prime Minister’s address was his focus on London and not just the nation as a whole. I’m sure the data shows that London has more cases, given the high population density and reliance on public transport, etc. However, from a behavioural science perspective the reference to London could be because a number of studies suggest that messaging targeted at a broader group is less effective. Theories such as ‘hyperbolic discounting’ demonstrate that people assume there is less  chance of something happening to them if it’s a long way off; keeping things local or more tailored has proven to give messages more salience.  

Timely

The progression of the number of cases meant the Government needed to step up its interventions but again, I find the exact timing of the latest escalation in measures interesting. The theory of ‘hot states’ indicates that people are more likely to enact on a behavioural change when they are more emotionally charged. As hysteria started to grow, with new stories emerging about the spread of the disease, you can imagine that holding off this next step until the public were begging for it to happen could be used to increase the resonance of the message. It also builds on confirmation bias – finally the PM has come round to my way of thinking! Further, the timing of the public address at 5pm is likely because more people are at home for work, with their loved ones and families. You only have to look around your living room to think - I need to take action and be accountable!  A clear example of affect or emotional bias at play.

Much has been made within the MR community of how the coronavirus situation may enable us to more widely embrace digital approaches at the expense of face-to-face approaches (although we’re largely doing that already) and it offers a potential to experiment with home / flexi-working on a broader scale. I wonder if this is a watershed moment for the mainstreaming of behavioural sciences, and a great opportunity to convince others more broadly of the power of these well-established principles.

Behavioural science cannot enforce behaviour change on this scale on its own, but the volume of literature and evidence supporting the effectiveness of interventions ascribed above gives me confidence that it will help enable more of the responsible behaviours desired at this crucial time. Further, if behavioural science can enable these changes at such a macro level then there must be an increased role for BE at a more micro level in our daily work. I hope that the coronavirus will be contained shortly and we look forward to discussing, utilizing, and experimenting with our clients on how we can incorporate these principles into our day-to-day work.

For more information on how we may be able to utilize behavioural economic theory in any upcoming studies please contact anthonyg@researchpartnership.com 

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