Journal Article

Motivating social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic: An online experiment

October 27, 2020

Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 265, November 2020, 113478

Attachment Size
Download PDF 4.44 MB


Maintaining social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic can save lives. We therefore set out to test communication strategies to promote social distancing.


We aimed to test two novel public health messages against a control message. The first was designed to exploit the “identifiable victim” effect by highlighting the risk of transmission to identifiable vulnerable persons. The second sought to counteract intuitive underestimation of exponential transmission.


In total, 500 Irish adults undertook a pre-registered, online experiment. They were randomly assigned to a control group or one of two treatment groups. The control group viewed a current poster that encouraged a 2-m separation between people. The two treatment groups saw posters of similar design, but with narrative messages describing how an individual had infected a specific vulnerable person or multiple other people. Later questions measured intentions to undertake three specific types of social interaction over the coming days and the stated acceptability of three other types of social interaction. Pilot work had identified these six behaviors as “marginal” – people were unsure whether they were advisable.


Participants in the treatment conditions were more cautious about undertaking the behaviors and less accepting of them. This positive effect occurred despite participants rating the treatment posters as likely to be less effective and memorable than the control poster.


Messages that invoke thoughts of infecting vulnerable people or large numbers of people can motivate social distancing and, hence, help to limit the spread of COVID-19. Stated public evaluations (obtained via focus groups or surveys) may underestimate the actual effectiveness of such emotional messages.