Behavioural science can be used to fight the coronavirus

The spread of the coronavirus could be slowed using findings from behavioural science, according to a new ESRI research paper. The conclusion is based on more than 100 scientific research papers reviewed over the past week by the institute’s Behavioural Research Unit.

The review covers seven topics: hand washing, face touching, isolation, collective action, avoiding undesirable behaviours, crisis communication, and risk perception. Some clear conclusions emerge from the evidence.

Simple, cheap behavioural interventions can make large differences. For instance, many more people use hand sanitisers when they are placed with colourful signs in unmissable locations, such as the centre of entrance halls, the middle of lift lobby areas, or immediately facing doors. All organisations can do this.

The researchers collected evidence on the psychological impact of isolation and how to help people to cope. The implication is that we need more official support, perhaps resourcing a dedicated phoneline. People can be helped to plan isolation. They do better by staying in contact with others and keeping up a routine. This is important to ensure that those who need to self-isolate are supported and not deterred from doing so.

Findings from behavioural science also suggest how to encourage people to act in the public interest and to avoid undesirable behaviours like panic buying or xenophobic responses.

“Some of the most important findings concern collective action – we are all in this together” said Professor Pete Lunn, Head of the Behavioural Research Unit. “The evidence shows that public-spirited behaviour is much more likely when there is frequent communication of how we can best help each other and strong group identity, not only nationally but also in smaller groups like workplaces, schools and local communities. Polite social disapproval for those who don’t comply is important too.”

The evidence covered in the paper contains lessons regarding crisis communication and perceptions of risk. Speed, honesty and credibility are important in official communication, but so is empathy. It is best if communication of risks is coupled with actions people can take to reduce it.