Use emotion, not just science, to change behaviour over coronavirus

The way to get people to heed warnings is to inoculate them with good ideas, an expert on behaviour change says.

Most of us aren’t scientists or doctors. But we are, potentially, spreading coronavirus. 

So we all need to change our behaviours. Simple behaviours such as washing your hands or social distancing. 

The problem is that many of us haven’t changed our behaviours yet. And even if we have, we need to stick to those changes.

One in 10 people think there is no threat from coronavirus (YouGov survey) and almost 20% of us refuse to wash our hands more (Imperial College research). Only 31% think that avoiding going out is a very effective way to stop coronavirus (Imperial College).

An international poll by YouGov recently found that the UK was less worried about coronavirus than any other country polled. While people are starting to change their behaviour, it’s far too slow.

We need people to change their behaviour. And it’s likely that we are going to need this change for the rest of 2020.

So how do we do it?

The good news is that ideas spread like viruses.

And that gives us two areas to target. Both inoculating people against bad ideas and making good ideas more infectious.

First of all, we need to inoculate people against bad ideas. Making bad ideas less infectious. 

Fifty years of psychological research shows that it’s hard to change people’s minds. So the best way to stop disinformation is to inoculate people with a good belief.

Don’t tell people what the myths are. Instead, give them something true, but wrapped in emotion.

Infection and mortality rates are the language of scientists and politicians. We need to speak the language of persuasion. That means showing the emotional risk to people who don’t feel personally threatened.

For instance: how would you feel if you accidentally infected your granny?

This risk is a serious concern among experts and it’s implicit in government communications.

But when we bring the risk to the level of one person, it works better. That’s why charities put up posters with a single child in them, not the millions who need help.

Secondly, we need to make behaviour change interesting. More infectious.

It’s really easy to spend a lot on advertising that isn’t noticed. On average, British people saw the "Get ready for Brexit" campaign 55 times. Yet 42% of people didn’t remember it, a National Audit Office report showed.

We can’t afford for 42% of people to not change their behaviour.

The government’s new ads are an improvement. But relying on a few overstretched civil servants and their ad agencies isn’t enough to reach the full range of British society.

Repeating the same messages for months on end will also be extremely boring. In fact, you are probably bored of the handwashing message already – and it has only been a few weeks.

Instead, the government should create a few simple briefs around the biggest problems and crowdsource the answer. The Wash Hands Poster Generator is a great example. But why isn’t the government taking the best of these and amplifying them across channels? 

The brilliant creativity of Britain’s young people on TikTok can entertain older people on Facebook. 

Influencers aren’t just young people, though. We sometimes forget that the messenger matters to older people too. And the government isn't always the right people.

In 1981, the government had to decide who to communicate vital information to in the event of a nuclear attack. They chose Kevin Keegan and Ian Botham. A footballer and a cricketer. Neither knew much about nuclear war.

Because we don’t always pay attention to experts, even if we know we should.

A particular priority has to be older people. While most now say they are willing to self-isolate, it will be hard to maintain this for long periods.

If you want older people to self-isolate effectively, then the Queen and Sir David Attenborough are perfect messengers.

They are known and loved by virtually the whole country. Attenborough is liked by 86% of people – and is associated with popular science.

When the Queen and Attenborough self-isolate and start doing video calls, people will pay attention.

And when the Queen keeps away from other people, not just Prince Charles, it will send a powerful signal that coronavirus is a danger to older people. 

And when Attenborough washes his hands and tells other people to, it will reach people who don’t trust the government.

The government should start a programme specifically targeting celebrities. Every foolish statement from a pop star creates problems that need to be undone. And every government message they carry is free advertising.

And one final challenge for the government’s campaign. You can’t tell who has been infected with bad ideas. We also have to be careful assuming that everyday experts such as doctors are always well-informed.

I did research on flu vaccine 10 years ago. NHS staff didn’t understand the benefits. I was astounded to find that they often believed vaccine myths. Unsurprisingly, only 35% got vaccinated. 

The good news is that over the past 10 years the NHS has doubled it. Today, more than 70% get the flu jab.

How did they do this? Through a highly effective NHS communications campaign.

The lesson for coronavirus? Inoculate with good messages. And just because it’s important, don’t think that people will listen to you.

Rob Blackie has worked on behaviour-change campaigns for more than 20 years for clients such as Public Health England, the Home Office, Nestlé and Unilever

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