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Unlocking the secrets to our behaviour during Covid-19 pandemic

Social distancing (35235577)
Social distancing (35235577)

Is the coronavirus pandemic as much a behavioural problem as a biological one?

A strange question, perhaps, given the devastating impact that Covid-19 is wreaking across the globe. But the spread of the virus is about human behaviour. It is why we have been on lockdown for the best part of 10 weeks.

Dr Sander van der Linden would argue the answer to the question is yes. He is one of 40 international experts from around the world that worked on what behavioural science has to contribute to the pandemic for an article – Using social and behavioural science to support Covid-19 pandemic response – that was published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal.

Dr van der Linden is an assistant professor in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

An expert in psychological and behavioural science, his research, until recently, had been focused on social risks like climate change and misinformation, but now the psychology of pandemics is on his research agenda.

“Part of the solution is that people need to coordinate their behaviour around the world in order to be able to manage the pandemic, and when I say coordinate behaviours I mean that people need to comply with health guidelines,” Dr van der Linden tells the Cambridge Independent.

By the health guidelines, he refers to things such as self-isolating, washing hands frequently and physical distancing.

“The interesting thing about this is that’s what psychologists would call a social dilemma,” explains Dr van der Linden.

“If everyone cooperates, if everyone does the right thing, then we’re all better off than if no one cooperates.

“But sometimes there is a dilemma in the sense of what’s in your best interest?

“If you don’t have the disease and you’re not in the risk group, it might be more attractive for you to just do what’s best for you and not in the best interests of society.

“But if everyone does that, we’re all worse off than if everyone sacrifices a little bit and cooperates in order to come to a solution.

“It’s why human behaviour and the way we act and interact with each other is so central to the pandemic.”

As well as the basic actions needed to mitigate the risk to individuals and others, communication plays a vital part.

Sander van der Linden, assistant professor in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab. (35233492)
Sander van der Linden, assistant professor in social psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge, and director of the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab. (35233492)

In 2018, Churchill College fellow Dr van der Linden worked with partners to develop Bad News, an award-winning interactive online game to help inoculate players against fake news and misinformation.

In the current crisis, he stresses that the message of risk must be evidenced in a clear, concise way that is easy to grasp to influence behaviour positively.

“I think there is a lot of potential for miscommunication which then negatively affects how people think about and subsequently act on the information they have,” he says.

“Tied into that is the spread of misinformation. The government, the WHO and the NHS are not the only sources of information that people attend to – most misinformation and fake news spread from social networks.

“People are tuned in to the social networks and lots of people receive completely false, fabricated and harmful information, both about the virus and what to do about it.

“We need to attend to that as well. In all of those areas, I think human behaviour is just key.”

So how do we change?

Our behaviours become ingrained over time, so it is not just a matter of flicking a switch and adjusting what we had been accustomed to overnight.

Our ability to adapt, however, was shown with the introduction of lockdown.

Dr van der Linden admits that he was sceptical from the outset of the idea of behavioural fatigue, that people would grow tired of self-isolating, a suggestion that has been put forward in some quarters as to why the lockdown was enforced later in the UK than some countries.

“The question of timing was important but the evidence that the government put out wasn’t consistent with the policy,” he says.

“The idea of it really was to postpone based on some timing issue, with the idea that people wouldn’t be able to self-isolate for very long, and the literature.

“But, actually, the literature was about the negative psychological impact of isolation on people’s mental health, which is a very different question.

“It didn’t answer their question of how long people can stay inside and change their behaviour, in a sense of not going outside.”

While there are ongoing concerns about the negative effects for people’s wellbeing, particularly from different socioeconomic groups, the restrictions have been observed by the majority.

It means that behaviours can be changed, but as the lockdown eases they will be put under a greater spotlight with the temptation to return to ‘normal’.

A good example may be the simple act of a greeting – a shake of the hand or a kiss on the cheek to say hello.

“Once you have an established habit, it is very difficult to change, but you can do it,” says Dr van der Linden, who is on the management board of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication.

“It’s called freeze/unfreeze – you have to freeze the existing habit, and then unfreeze it.

“The idea really is that habits are an automated process so it starts off as a conscious behaviour but then over time when you repeatedly do something and get rewarded for it, it becomes more of a subconscious process and that’s when it turns into a habit.

“You need to retrain people to not do certain things. It is possible, but it takes a lot of intervention.

“The behavioural insights team in the government is very experienced in these kinds of interventions by nudging people in certain ways.”


Messages at sinks and basins to remind people to wash hands is one of the easiest nudges, for example, for what is a high-frequency, low-effort behaviour.

Advertisements, media campaigns and prompts work to remind people of expected certain behaviours, and there are systems that can be implemented to create adjustments.

But Dr van der Linden says: “One of the most effective interventions, in general, that hasn’t really been applied to the pandemic as much yet, is the idea of social norms.

“People do what other people do a lot of the time. In situations where we don’t know what to do, we look at what other people are doing.

“It’s a natural curiosity all of us sometimes use because over the course of human evolution it’s been very useful to us.

“If other people run away from a danger, you run away probably to save your life – there’s the excuse for your instinct. In the event there was nothing really there anyway, it was a bit of a wasted effort, but in the end it pays off.

“Of course, there are certain situations where it doesn’t pay off – there is always this pro and con argument when it comes to social norms. They can be leveraged in a very effective way when you need to coordinate people’s behaviour.”

It is with this concept in mind that Dr van der Linden addresses the subject of wearing face masks in the UK. Despite it being recommended officially by the government, most people here are not currently wearing masks to visit shops, suggesting to others that it is not necessary and making it very difficult to change behaviour.

“One of the easiest ways to change this is to get a big enough minority of people wearing masks, so that it sends a signal,” he says.

“If more people join the bandwagon, the stronger the signal and the more people will pile on. Eventually, over time, you will have a new normative, very typical behaviour that would be wearing masks.

“You can do that with visuals, role models of people wearing masks, elite cues from government officials, you could do celebrities advocating for it in terms of role model influence, and you can use multiple channels to create a new norm so that people adopt it.

“Once it’s there, it can sustain itself for as long as it’s salient.”

The problem comes with the confusing communication – wearing a mask can be seen as threatening and a drastic behaviour, and it is paired with the message that lockdown is being relaxed.

“I think that’s part of the problem. But the mask intervention itself is a prompt and a nudge itself,” says Dr van der Linden.

“If you’re outside and you see a mask, it reminds you maybe not to shake other people’s hands, that you need to keep your distance.

“It’s another reminder, another cue that could have what we call a spillover effect.

“When you see other people wearing masks, it’s a constant reminder which could be helpful.”

Wear a mask to go shopping (35235572)
Wear a mask to go shopping (35235572)

Are there variants on how easy it is to adapt behaviour though?

For example, does age play a factor? Are you more likely to be able to adapt if you are not ‘stuck in your ways’?

Dr van der Linden does not believe that on a fundamental level it varies, but compliance may differ given the way the virus affects people differently based on age.

“In general, we know in psychology that your motivation to protect your own health and that of other people is very much driven by the risk,” he explains.

“Here, it is quite clear that different people have different risk factors.

“If you are older, you have a much higher risk and people know that, so they are probably more motivated to protect their own behaviour and that of other people than people who are in a low-risk category, which is going to be younger people.”

Since younger people may perceive less risk, they may adopt fewer of the behaviours requested of them, and for teenagers, they are at a key stage of their development.

“On one hand, they are more susceptible to social influence than adults, so they are more amenable to change, but on the other hand they are in that rebellious phase and they are in the low-risk group,” says Dr van der Linden.

“They might not understand why they’re going to want to have to change their behaviour. This is usually a time for them to explore and for the adolescent brain to interact with their peers, which is being hampered at the moment.

“Social interaction is very important during adolescence so they might have difficulty reconciling those recommendations.”

Dr van der Linden suggests a different strategy for teenagers, citing the book The Teenage Brain, using role models from their community to advocate protective norms.

“They are going to be most receptive to influence from their peers at the moment, and less likely to listen to the government or even their parents and other people,” he says.

“Behaviour change strategies are more effective when they are tailored to their target audience, that’s a lesson in general. Here, I think, the differentiation between younger and older is a particularly relevant one, because of their risk perception and two, because of norms and who they might listen to.”

With human behaviour so variable and difficult to change, you can understand why it may present one of the biggest challenges as we move forward and out of the peak of the pandemic.

But with the right nudges, prompts and practices in place, the evidence is there to show that the brain can be as proactive in looking to the future as it is reactive.

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