Could Behavior Change Help Temper the COVID Storm?
The pandemic that has taken the whole world by storm and left people in abysmal conditions is here to stay a long time, or so it appears. There is no denying that it has turned our world upside down in ways that we wouldn’t have imagined, far less anticipated or prepared for. Yet here we are-at our wit’s end-waiting for better days.
Instilling Behaviour Change for Long-Term Win
There are several stakeholders in the fight against COVID-19: citizens, government, policy-makers, health-workers, police forces and many others. While effective policy measures are necessary to navigate this storm, ensuring compliance measures is equally important.
In addition to key measures taken to contain the spread of COVID- like lockdowns and vaccination drives, it is crucial to bring about a permanent behavior change to prevent transmission of the disease and assure safety in the longer run.
Some behavioural changes that the pandemic has already brought in are: wearing masks, adapting to new model of remote working and education, maintaining social distancing, engaging in virtual interactions etc.
By and large, people have adapted to the new lifestyle and new ways of working. However, 100 percent compliance has been difficult to achieve. An analysis of low compliance levels reveals that one of the reasons for neglecting norms has been ‘behavioral bias’, which persist when one is learning to internalize new behaviors. For instance, some of the biases that influenced COVID-19 response were:
Optimism Bias: An “optimism bias” that leads to an underestimation of the risk posed by the virus, particularly where there are no reported cases in one’s own community. This has led people to downplay the threat of the pandemic and ignore guidelines.
Overconfidence effect: There are misunderstandings that exposure to the virus will strengthen one’s immune system, that it’s “just a flu”, or, particularly among young people, that they are strong enough to handle it. This “overconfidence effect” is combined with a lack of attention to guidance on the importance of washing hands thoroughly and for a minimum of 20-30 seconds.
Status Quo Bias: As one of the more socially active age groups, young people find it particularly difficult to give up on outings with their friends. This could be seen as a “status quo bias,” an aversion to change in one’s existing lifestyle
Present Bias: Remind people of what they can do from home, including e-services and the various ways to connect with friends virtually. Reminders give salience to the right behavior and have been shown to be effective nudges.
Fear Factor/Resignation: There is a a fear of being ridiculed for showing concern about the virus or abiding by restrictions
These “Behavioral Barriers” are largely responsible for the way we respond to a crisis. In addition to these biases, there are several drivers of behavioral change shaping our responses. When identified correctly, these barriers could be overcome with the help of effective policy interventions.
How Are Different Countries Implementing Behavior Change Strategy?
There has been a wide focus on the role of behavior science in shaping COVID-19 policy response. Countries around the world have been keen to implement nudges that could help improve compliance to COVID norms.
In UK, the British government’s strategy had been informed not only by medical advice, but also by advice from behavioural scientists on the ‘Behavioral Insights Team’. They observed specific patterns in the public’s response to the pandemic and altered policy prescriptions based on their findings.
For instance, researchers noticed that certain gender and age differences exist in norm compliance. Younger people, especially men, were particularly bad at recalling coronavirus guidance across trials and were thus less likely to comply with containment measures. This may partly be explained by the tendency of younger generation to engage more with content in shorter formats like tweets, videos, GIFs as compared to long form guidance. It may also be that young people are less engaged with the issue altogether. On the other hand, middle-aged and older people have become increasingly worried about coronavirus as the cases grew rapidly. Targeted policy response towards different age-groups, in this instance, could help improve overall compliance.
In India, to keep up with the directives of social distancing, new physical infrastructure has been built. In various public spaces, circles marking areas where people must stand during social interactions have been painted on road, to help them maintain the recommended 6ft distance. This is another example of a nudge where desired outcomes are achieved by helping people overcome a psychological barrier.
Using influencers and community leaders to deliver messages with greater impact has been another strategy employed by several countries. For e.g. UNDP Somalia mobilized its community of storytellers to produce videos, animations and photos that inform the public about how to protect themselves and others from infection. UNDP Lebanon called on YLP alumni to record “how-to” videos on hand washing, and to encourage a sense of responsibility towards others. This is also known as the “bandwagon effect” – if we perceive that others are increasingly engaging in a behaviour, we become more likely to do so ourselves.
These initiatives helped localize key messages, brand desirable behavior as social norms, and make the threat more palpable.