At this point in time we have all the scientific information we need to prevent the coronavirus from interfering: avoid gathering indoors with people outside your household, stay physically away from others, wear a mask and wash your hands frequently. Of those who can take these precautions – many people cannot, as policy makers should recognize – too many still disregard public health advice. A recent report by researchers at Northeastern University and elsewhere found that the number of Americans following most recommendations has steadily declined since April. (The wearing of masks, which has increased, was an exception.)
This is a problem societies have struggled with for centuries: how do you convince people to do things that are beneficial to the community, like social distancing – or crucial, that they be vaccinated in due course – when such measures do not benefit them immediately Who is taking them or disadvantaging them in any way? It turns out that research suggests that we are more likely to engage in “prosocial behavior” if we believe that many others are doing the same. However, this creates an obvious puzzle: How can you convince more people to adopt a new behavior when it must already appear ubiquitous?
In 2008, the Journal of Consumer Research published a classic study that showed how describing “social norms” for people – that is, telling them what the majority of others are doing – can promote prosocial behavior. Robert Cialdini, then Professor of Marketing and Psychology at Arizona State University, and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments to investigate how hotels can get more visitors to reuse their towels, thereby conserving resources (and the bottom line of one Hotels). Usually, washroom signs informed guests that reusing towels would help protect the environment. However, the researchers wondered if it would be even more motivating to learn that many other people were reusing their towels.
To find out, the hotel left the usual sign on the towel rails of a group of rooms in the laundry room – the sign emphasizing that towel reuse is environmentally friendly – and posted signs to another group of rooms stating that "almost 75 % of guests asked to participate in our new resource saving program help. “It turned out that this second group was more than 25 percent more likely to reuse their towels. "Seeing what many others are doing is good for imitation," says Cialdini. "We think this gives us an indication of what is the most valid answer and what is objectively correct."
Of course, myriad factors influence our behavior, making it nearly impossible to isolate the effects of a single message. But the fundamental finding of the towel study – that we are more likely to do something when told that many others are doing it – "has been repeated in many different settings," David Rand, director of the Human Cooperation Laboratory at MIT, told me in an email . "It's a real and reliable effect." At least in the short term, said Cristina Bicchieri, director of the Center for Social Norms and Behavioral Dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania; It is still unclear how long this effect will last.
There is evidence that the principle is relevant to the Covid-19 guidelines: Researchers at Doshisha University in Japan asked Japanese citizens why they wore masks during the pandemic and found that it was not because they believe the masks will protect them or others from the virus. Rather, in an article published in Frontiers in Psychology in August, the researchers reported that the overwhelming majority understood that this was what most other people were doing and that it eased their fear of doing it themselves.
Unfortunately, this suggests that many of the tactics officials use to try to change people's behavior may reinforce it. For example, if governors accuse too many residents of ignoring ordinances – such as holding house parties – to increase the number of cases, they inadvertently make those gatherings the norm. That is, rather than emphasizing risky behavior, it would probably be more effective to highlight how many people are taking security precautions. "To create a new standard," says Bicchieri, "you have to develop a feeling that other people are following the rules."
To create that impression, you first need to find out who your audience is. Then, says Aisha Langford, assistant professor of population health at the Grossman School of Medicine, N.Y.U., you need to know, “Who do you trust and who do you seek to assess your norms? It could be a doctor. It could be an influencer, mom or dad on social media. “Often it is those we see in our immediate surroundings who shape our sense of what we have in common. "You look around what other people seem to be doing," says Douglas Storey, research director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs, "and that affects your motivation to do something."
What we believe others are doing affects our actions, but also what we think of as acceptable. In a 1990 series of experiments published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Cialdini and colleagues found that 33 percent of those who received a flyer on their windshield threw it on the floor. When the researchers got a man to throw a bag that he carried into a trash can on the way to his car, the number of those polluting the flyer dropped to 17 percent. And as Cialdini reports in an October article on his website, none of those who saw a man picking up garbage in a disapproving way (frowning, shaking head) were not thrown away.
Earlier this year, Bicchieri and her colleagues conducted a survey of nine countries with different cultures, whose experiences with the pandemic were different, to assess the impact of the perceived approval on Covid precautions. They found that if people expected many of their fellow citizens to practice and acknowledge social distancing and stay at home, unlike a few, they were 55 percent more likely to follow these rules; However, the expectation that many people would either just practice or just approve the rules did not affect their behavior nearly as much. (The paper was preprinted in November and has yet to be reviewed by experts.) In particular, Bicchieri said, the question of whether respondents trusted science also had a big impact on their willingness to follow health guidelines, regardless of what they believed about their peers.
There is a way to encourage prosocial behavior even more, says Rand: "Do it so other people know whether you are doing it or not." He and his co-authors saw this in an experiment conducted with a California utility company. The company wanted to attract customers to a program that would allow them to remotely reduce the use of air conditioning during periods of high demand to avoid power outages. In a 2013 paper published in PNAS, they reported that putting a registration form for the program in the lobby of a building so residents could see which neighbors had registered was seven times as effective as offering a $ 25 incentive.
With some precautions against coronavirus, observability is easy to achieve: you can see if people are wearing a mask in your grocery store. However, it's harder to know if they're washing their hands or having parties, and even more difficult for them to determine your consent, and vice versa. Therefore, advertising campaigns that explicitly tell community members what a majority is doing (like the posters in the towel study) and agree to it can improve compliance. And when only a minority is following the guidelines, it can be helpful to cite trends moving in a positive direction or use raw numbers – Rand suggests that "millions of Americans are doing X" rather than "1 percent Americans are doing X" “-. Right now everyone is inundated with Covid information from all possible sources. A single public health initiative is unlikely to change the trajectory of the virus. However, using research-based communication strategies could help academics and government officials make their messages more influential and save lives. However, according to Cialdini, the emphasis was “on health sciences, epidemiology and medicine. Not in behavioral science. "