Coronavirus has put the application of behavioural science to influence public health into the spotlight. And the stakes couldn’t be higher.

The image of the Prime Minister, flanked by his Chief Medical and Science Officers, appeals to our need for authority. The daily nature of the briefings encourage a habit of attentiveness. The emphasis on collective action encourages us to stay with the herd (if only metaphorically).

But how deliberately is the Government using behavioural science to influence public health in its coronavirus response? We know that the ‘scientific advice’ behind focusing on protective measures like hand-washing over widespread lock-downs comes from the behavioural scientists advising the government.

Perhaps that’s how our science comes to differ from other countries’ – it’s more behaviourally-led.

The UK is trying to account for – and even make use of – the irrational ways we respond to events. Those advisers know, for instance, that small, easy habits that feel rewarding in the moment are a lot easier to establish and maintain.

It’s a lot harder to persuade someone who feels fine that they need to stay cooped up for a second week than it is to build a habit of washing your hands every time you enter the house. Or touching elbows instead of shaking hands. 

Meanwhile our biases will continue to work against us.

The scarcity bias is driving irrational panic buying, which snowballs as people fear they’re being left behind by others’ hoarding.

Aldi has responded by restricting people to buying four of any item. This might actually be priming people with the number four as a normative value, and nudging people who only really need one to buy two or three. Restricting to one (while not strictly enforcing it) might make more sense.

Using behavioural science to influence public health has been used around the world for a decade or more now. From smoking cessation to hospital hygiene, it has proven its efficacy in influencing positive behaviour change – we’ve been nudged towards better health decisions.

There’s every chance that the current crisis could have an enduring, beneficial effect on simple hygiene and disease control processes like hand-washing. And it’s inadvertently proved a tipping point for remote-working and reducing travel, which could be huge cultural shifts.

But now the science is in the front lines of an actual coronavirus pandemic. And without the ‘air cover’ of any heavyweight public health broadcast messaging.

In the last week, we’ve repeatedly seen the public clamour for advice, action and authority outstrip the government’s supply. People, businesses and whole industries took their own action before they were asked to. In my view, to be effective, the science needs a louder, clearer voice.

Coronavirus: How the government hopes to stop you touching your face.

What is Behavioural Science?

Behavioural Science has been around since the 60s. It blends elements of psychology and economics to identify the mental triggers, or bias, nudges and heuristics, that affect the decisions people make.

The Behaviours Agency

We’re a creative agency that uses behavioural science to create impactful ideas and experiences for retailers and brands. We call it creativity informed by behavioural science. If you want to know more about how do this, get in touch now.

By Steve Brunt

Planning Director