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How can governments use behavioral science in fighting coronavirus?

Study shows how governments, public authorities, workplaces, households could benefit from behavioral science in fighting pandemic

Aysu Bicer  | 15.03.2020 - Update : 16.03.2020
How can governments use behavioral science in fighting coronavirus?


Findings of a Dublin-based study indicated seven areas where behavioral science can make practical and strategic contributions to the battle against coronavirus.

Behavioral sciences incorporate insights from psychology about what motives people to alter their behaviors.

It is proposed by many behavioral scientists that it is vital for governments to understand human nature when drawing up public policy, as many of the related issues concern a lack of cooperation between governments and citizens.

Principles of behavioral public policy suggest that if you want to encourage the desired behavior, you should make it easy, attractive, social and timely.

In the case of coronavirus, a desired public behavior is to obey rules of hygiene and not to panic.

Behavioral scientists believe that education and information are not adequate, so the authorities need to alter physical and social environments as well as the mindset in the battle against the disease.

After emerging in Wuhan, China, in December, the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 has spread to at least 141 countries and territories.

The global death toll is now over 5,700, with more than 152,000 confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization, which declared the outbreak a “pandemic".

Behavioral interventions can be put in place

According to a study released by Dublin-based the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) on Thursday, hand-washing, face touching, isolation, public-spirited behavior, undesirable behaviors, crisis communication, and risk perceptions are the areas behavioral science can contribute to stemming the spread of the virus.

Researchers proposed that handy behavioral interventions can be put in place not only by relevant national and local authorities but by individual organizations, workplaces, and even households.

Evidence on hand-washing, for example, shows education and awareness regarding improving hand hygiene have shortcomings.

It is suggested, thus, that putting hand sanitizers and colorful signage in central locations such as beyond doors, canteen entrances, the middle of entrance halls and lift lobbies raises its use to a considerable extent.

“All organizations and public buildings could adopt this cheap and effective practice,” it noted.

The researchers lacked concrete evidence in decreasing face touching, yet they advise people do find new ways of acceptable behavior as sneezing and coughing.

“And keeping tissues within arm’s reach could help,” they said.


One of the measures taken in fighting the virus is to restrict social contact to prevent people with symptoms from spreading the disease to others.

Yet, the researchers thought that this could have a negative psychological impact on people’s well-being, making them feel lonely.

The scientists, therefore, suggested that authorities need to supply and advertise additional mental health services, including support lines and advice, for people who go through isolation.

“This includes encouraging people to inform social media networks that they are isolated, encouraging messages and calls, and maintaining some routine,” the scientist said.

Risk perceptions biased

Risk perceptions are easily biased, the research said. The researchers warned that highlighting a single case or using emotive language will raise biases.

“Risk is probably best communicated through numbers, with ranges to describe uncertainty, emphasizing that numbers in the middle are more likely.

Stating a maximum, for instance, “up to X thousand”, will exacerbate the bias.

The research also suggests that one of the main roles of countries during a pandemic is to inform their citizens about the risks.

Crisis communication at heart of strategy

Researchers also said there is much more reporting on the latest levels of a threat than on actions people can and should take to reduce it.

They warned media regarding covering the issues related to the pandemic, saying: “One can make a reasonable case that during a health crisis such as this, the role of the media should change somewhat, as it does during other periods, such as elections.

It is thought that constructive personal actions and direct communications between authorities and citizens should be encouraged by the media.

Besides speed, honesty, and credibility, it is vital to stress the usefulness of individual actions.

“Empathy matters -- people need reassurance that those in charge understand how they feel,” said the researchers.

Using multiple platforms is thought to be useful as well, despite social media has not generally been effective for official communication during outbreaks.

The scientists also advised that rapid online testing of comprehension and public responses to health materials can be undertaken to back the development of the best materials.

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