Covid-19 transmission is dictated by human behaviour. So how do we change how people behave?by Pete Lunn / March 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
A few days back, I walked into a Dublin hospital that is getting it right. Immediately beyond the revolving door, just a few yards into the main lobby, stood a large, red “Stop” sign, the same shape as at road junctions. Below it was a dispenser containing hand sanitiser. At the reception desk, before requesting my name or appointment letter, the receptionist politely asked, “Did you use the hand sanitiser?”
The role of behavioural science, and the David Cameron-created “Nudge Unit” in particular, have been in the spotlight since the coronavirus crisis began. The government’s behavioural scientists of choice advised that the public’s willingness to comply with containment measures would be time-limited.
Once the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, had remarked that “if you move too early… people get fatigued,” it was clear that an argument based in psychology was leading the government to delay its move. I will come back to that. Something important needs to be established first.
Behavioural science can save lives
I began in that Dublin hospital because it demonstrates just how much insight—cheap, practical but effective and potentially life-saving insight—behavioural science can offer. The behavioural intervention in that hospital foyer ticked multiple boxes. The novelty of the sign grabbed my attention, but the location mattered too. I pretty much had to walk around the sanitiser station to avoid tripping over it. As well as this physical context, the social context mattered. Had I walked past the station without using it, people might have looked disapproving, perhaps even said something. Experimental trials show that placing highly-coloured sanitiser stations in the middle of public spaces substantially increases use.
More generally, much evidence shows that concern about social disapproval makes the more selfish, or self-absorbed, among us behave in a more public-spirited fashion. The receptionist’s question, asked in front of others in the queue, exploited this same behavioural effect. I’m pretty sure one guy behind me lied to the receptionist when he said “yes”—his hesitation just discernible. He then used another sanitiser placed in front of the elevator doors.
So this intervention is backed by behavioural science. Every public building, business or workplace could adopt it, or something similar. Assuming that the public health authorities…