Opinion article

How behavioural science can inform COVID-19 policy

Director of Monash Sustainable Development Institute enterprise, BehaviourWorks Australia, Professor Liam Smith, writes about how the insights of behavioural science can improve decision making and public policy in crisis situations.

The COVID-19 crisis hit Australia quickly – one minute it was something going on in another part of the world, the next it was on our doorstep. When it did arrive, politicians, policymakers and businesses were relatively quick to respond as cases began increasing and we saw other countries, only a few weeks ahead in the progression of the virus, struggling to cope. States of Emergency were declared, giving governments significant power over individual freedoms, and the public discourse allowed laws to be enacted that would have previously been unpalatable.
The primary tool used for preventing the spread of infection during the initial stages of the crisis was a large-scale public behaviour change campaign. This campaign, along with relatively draconian legislative and regulatory tools, was used to buy time while the health system prepared by sourcing more beds, PPE and ventilators, and simultaneously mobilised resources to expedite the exploration of possible treatments and vaccines.
From a behavioural perspective, behaviour change tools were relatively limited and relied heavily on legal tools enabled by a State of Emergency. While these tools were appropriate at the time, there is a need to diversify the toolkit going forward and behavioural scientists and practitioners will be key in helping us do this. Let me explain why.

Behaviour change is more crucial than ever

Despite not being extensively drawn upon to provide advice during the immediate crisis, behavioural science has a lot more to add in the current phase. This is because many of the behaviours we want to see are difficult to regulate. For example, many businesses and policymakers have now become interested in behaviours that ensure good mental and physical health during COVID-19 restrictions or are keen to ensure that communities are activated to look after the most vulnerable.
Public appetite for new rules, particularly for behaviours that have not yet been mandated or are difficult to regulate, is waning. In Australia, data we collected as part of the Survey of COVID Responses to Understand Behaviour (SCRUB) demonstrated a lower level of adherence to rules in May than in April. With rules also being relaxed around the country, there is now an expectation of behaviour rather than a requirement.
Governments and businesses, however, cannot force people to do things they might like them to do. Things such as downloading a tracing app, checking on their neighbours, buying local produce, purchasing only what they need (there are still some shortages), reducing food waste, conserving water and energy, socially distancing, or sitting upright when working from home. This means we need to persuade people to do, or keep doing, these things and this is where behavioural science is crucial.

Behaviour change tools

It is important to recognise that there are two broad approaches to behaviour change (most of the time). The first is to seek a small percentage change in behaviour in a large audience and the second is to seek a large change in a relatively small audience. While the COVID pandemic has enabled a third approach – a large change in a large audience – this shouldn’t be seen as the norm and is the sort of change generally only enabled by a crisis, or at least the perception of a crisis. 
There are several toolkits that are widely recognised as being useful when trying to influence people. These include Cialdini’s Principles of Persuasion, the UK Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST framework and BehaviourWorks’ INSPIRE toolkit for written communication. Most, if not all, of these are scalable and should be expected to yield small but significant changes in relatively large audiences.

1. Make desirable behaviours easy

While this makes a lot of intuitive sense, it’s surprising how little attention business and government give to removing as many barriers as possible. Some examples include:
  • For good posture at home, deliver furniture / equipment
  • For legitimate tax claims for working from home, provide simple calculators at tax time
  • To encourage downloading of the COVID Safe app, include direct links to download sites and ensure that the app is small.

2. Emphasise (positive) norms

It’s widely known that when communication suggests that large numbers, or the majority of people, are doing a behaviour, it can encourage more people to also perform the behaviour. Therefore, government and business should use language that highlights the fact that most or many people are social distancing, maintaining good posture at home and downloading the COVID Safe app. Importantly, the reverse can also be true. Making it appear that large numbers of people are doing undesirable behaviour can also increase the number doing them so this language should be avoided.

3. Use trusted sources

There is a lot of evidence showing that particular sources (known as injunctive norms) can be persuasive. In general terms, people in positions of authority, taller people and good-looking people are all more trusted. However, our SCRUB data shows that we trust health authorities the most, which means it’s better for messages to come from this source rather than others.

4. Time your messages

There is a lot of research showing that when messages are delivered makes a difference. Messages delivered in times of change are more effective than those delivered in times of stability. Now as restrictions are easing would be a logical time to deliver messages.

For large changes in small audiences, we need to take a number of steps when designing persuasive communication. These include identifying particular audiences, identifying the specific behaviour(s) to be changed, understanding the drivers and barriers to desirable behaviours and then designing interventions based on this understanding. This process is more complex but is an important complement to broader approaches.
Behaviour has been, and will continue to be, central to coping during COVID, but it may also be vital as we return to a new, and indeed better, society. Moments of disruption like we’ve experienced come so rarely, so we need to use the best of behavioural science to ensure we set a new path that benefits lives, livelihoods and liveability.

About the authors

Liam Smith

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Liam Smith is Director and co-founder of BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) and one of Australia’s leading authorities on behaviour change. Since establishing BWA in 2011, he has overseen significant growth in the enterprise, which now employes nearly 20 researchers, and been directly involved in conducting and/or overseeing more than 100 behaviour change research projects. He has published numerous research reports, research papers and public discussion pieces (e.g. white papers and opinion pieces in The Conversation) and is an active contributor on Zoos Victoria’s Science Committee, South East Water’s Customer Engagement Council and VicHealth’s Leading Thinker Taskforce.

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Sidney Gottlieb

28/08/2021 at 5:29:03 AM

thankyou so much for using my research that i started in the 1950s, i have invested a large part of my research on the public without my knowledge & am honored that MONASH UNIVERSITY & the VICTORIAN GOVT are implementing all the good work i did on an UNSUSPECTING PIUBLIC, if you are wondering who i am feel free to google my name & to help you along just google this heading 'THE FATHER OF MK ULTRA MIND CONTROL EXPERIMENTS' CIA.


Samwise Gamgee

02/09/2021 at 10:06:16 PM

Please don't impede on free will.


Liam Smith

06/10/2021 at 10:00:30 PM

Sounds like a propaganda center. Working directly for Danny Hunchback or what ?


Warrior's Daughter

08/10/2021 at 10:20:32 AM

This article says a lot about the weak men who want to monitor our every move.... Mind read us and predict our every response.... What type of mind crave that knowledge and control? The dark side of humanity that's who....they grow like a fungus in the realms of the collective subconscious. This article says more about Liam Smith and Dan Andrews than the people they crave to know.

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