Investigating the behavioural psychology behind COVID-19 guidelines

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Will wearing masks in public ever not feel weird? 

behavioural psychology COVID-19 graphic
Graphic by Mohamed Hassan, via Pixabay.

What motivates people to follow public health guidelines? Will mask-wearing and physical distancing ever feel normal? Many of these reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic are based in behavioural psychology. 

As case numbers continue to climb, policy-makers are realizing that compliance with the regulations is not only a matter of what their messaging contains, but more importantly, what approach is used in getting the message across. 

Frederick Gouzet is an associate professor in UVic’s psychology department and the director of its Centre for Youth and Society. He says adherence to guidelines is motivated primarily by reason or by fear — the former represents an individual’s belief in the guidelines’ necessity, whereas the latter is dreading risks and penalties associated with infraction. 

Letting people make an informed choice based on the recommendations is more effective in the long run than using fear and punitive measures to control behaviour, Grouzet added.

“Fear is an emotion…and there are different ways we cope with emotion…. One way is to deny it,” he explained. “Fear may work at the beginning, but at one point when you see the risk is not there or you’re not as affected…you stop doing it, because people don’t like being afraid.”

If people trust the message source, Grouzet said, they are also more likely to accept the actual message. 

Another key element is consistency in the message itself, added Simon Bacon, research chair in behavioural medicine at Concordia University. Governments that present inconsistent or even contradicting messages undermine their own authority, and people will be less likely to follow their regulations. “You discredit any information…and any rational conversation because you’re putting out two different totally opposite policies,” he said.

Both Grouzet and Bacon highlighted the data-driven approach adopted by B.C. health authorities as an instance where giving citizens the freedom to make their own choices has worked well.

“B.C. is a great example of a province who have presented data all through this, and they’ve talked about the decisions they’ve made in context of the data,” said Bacon.

“They took the time to explain exactly what the risk is, and why it could be efficient to adopt the different behaviours,” added Grouzet. “People don’t like being told what to do without any explanation.” 

People are also more likely to engage in a behaviour if they see a tangible benefit not only for themselves but for others as well. Results from the iCARE (International COVID-19 Awareness and Responses Evaluation) study, co-led by Bacon through the Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre, show that participants are more interested in how their actions will positively affect others in their communities than any potential detriment of not following the rules. However, Bacon added that focusing messaging on a single concept, for example health of the community, can lead to lower engagement from groups that feel less attached to that concept.

“If you want people to engage in any particular behaviour on a population level you have to appreciate that everyone is different,” he said. 

Health is not on the forefront of every group’s mind. Younger people, for example, tend to be more motivated by economic and social concerns such as job security. Bacon says that messaging should be mindful of this diversity. He suggests tailoring messaging to different segments of the population to increase efficiency and reach.

Ultimately, the adoption of safe behaviours depends on the normalization of those behaviours. Seeing other people wear masks makes us more likely to don a mask ourselves. 

“If you can have a societal shift to normalize a certain behaviour, after a certain point in time it just becomes an expectation,” said Bacon. He pointed out that when seatbelt regulations were introduced forty years ago, society was very resistant to the new measures. In addition to some punitive measures, policy-makers relied on campaigns and data to motivate a shift in perspective. 

“No one wanted to wear a seatbelt,” Bacon said. “Nowadays, you’re really odd if you don’t wear a seatbelt.”

Bacon stressed that engagement is actually very high in terms of following health guidelines. 

“The vast majority of Canadians…are doing what they’re supposed to do…and they really should be acknowledged for the amount of energy, effort and sacrifice they’re putting into it. I don’t think enough people really stop and say thank you, and I think we need to make sure we keep doing that.”

To participate in the iCARE research project, visit the Montreal Behavioural Medicine Centre’s website. The survey is available in almost 40 languages and takes about 20 minutes to complete.