Emotion, as well as information, prompts greater social distancing

Emotions are important for whether we keep our social distance, according to new ESRI research. The institute’s Behavioural Research Unit used an experiment to show how messages that highlight the danger of infecting specific vulnerable people, or large numbers of people, are more effective than messages that provide only information about what people should do.

In line with survey research, the study generally showed high levels of awareness and understanding of the Government’s measures to tackle COVID-19. The experiment tested how additional messages might sustain social distancing behaviour.

In the experiment, a nationally representative sample of people were randomised to see different posters. One emphasised the possibility of infecting a specific vulnerable person, such someone’s granny or a healthcare worker. Another stressed how one person could go on to infect many others. A control group saw a similar poster that communicated the government’s advice in a neutral way.  

Participants were later asked about their plans for the next few days and which behaviours they thought were acceptable or unacceptable. The posters that highlighted the possibility of infecting others produced more cautious plans and stronger support for keeping social distance. This was despite the fact that the participants themselves thought the poster containing neutral information would be more effective.

“We need to keep getting across not just what people should do, but why,” said Professor Pete Lunn, Head of the ESRI’s Behavioural Research Unit. “Humans are emotional creatures. The thought that we might be responsible for specific bad outcomes can alter our behaviour more than learning the relevant information and facts.”