14 April 2020 0 By Rhi Willmot

What is it? To encourage universal adherence to government guidelines, we must communicate effectively with those who are disproportionately affected by Covid-19, or who do not respond as intended to traditional messaging. For example, those living in poverty are more likely to work in low-paid casual jobs which have been heavily impacted by Covid-19, and live in small, crowded housing which pose greater stress during lockdown.

This group are also less likely to respond well to information on the negative consequences of risky behaviour1,2 (i.e. when smoking leads to cancer) due to a concept known as futurelessness3

Futurelessness describes the perception of  long-term planning as futile, due to exposure to risks which increase the likelihood of one’s own death but are impossible to control, such as violence and poor housing4. It is also associated with decreased social-cooperation outside of one’s immediate community5,6.  Collectively, these factors promote impulsive behaviour3 – when pleasurable but potentially harmful activities are prioritised over long-term consequences which may never be realised. For example, a person experiencing futurelessness may value the immediate enjoyment of spending time with friends over the long-term and uncertain danger of contracting Covid-19. 

How to use it:

  1. The Future’s Bright – imagining a positive future helps people restrain undesirable impulses, whilst picturing a dangerous or unstable future has the opposite effect7. Given current uncertainty about the long-term and widespread impact of Covid-19, it is important to communicate how individuals will be supported after the height of the pandemic in order to encourage positive action now. Likewise, policies such as a Universal Basic Income would provide a future foundation for current restraint. 
  2. Stress Relief Strategies – those living in impoverished environments typically have fewer resources to cope with stress, and therefore may pursue risky behaviour as a means of relief8. Targeting resources to reduce the specific stresses faced by these populations and promote general wellbeing can help attenuate this effect. 
  3. Replenish Resources – evidence suggests we all become more impulsive when resources are scarce7, such as when food supplies become unavailable. As such, it is important to support suppliers in delivering popular items, or public confidence in the restocking of supermarkets across weeks to come. The general media ‘mood’ around shortages (whether it be PPE, ventilator, carers, …) is counter-productive and drives a thinking context of ‘scarcity.’


  1. Daugherty, J. R. & Brase, G. L. Taking time to be healthy: Predicting health behaviors with delay discounting and time perspective. Pers. Individ. Dif. 48, 202–207 (2010).
  2. Resnicow, K. et al. Motivational Interviewing: moving from why to how with autonomy support. Int. J. Behav. Nutr. Phys. Act. 9, 19 (2012).
  3. Pepper, G. V. & Nettle, D. The behavioural constellation of deprivation: Causes and consequences. Behav. Brain Sci. 40, e314 (2017).
  4. Pepper, G. V & Nettle, D. Socioeconomic Disparities in Health Behaviour: An Evolutionary Perspective Gillian V. Pepper and Daniel Nettle. in Applied Evolutionary Anthropology 225–243 (Springer, 2014). doi:10.1007/978-1-4939-0280-4_10
  5. Drukker, M., Kaplan, C., Feron, F. & van Os, J. Children’s health-related quality of life, neighbourhood socio-economic deprivation and social capital. A contextual analysis. Soc. Sci. Med. 57, 825–841 (2003).
  6. Schroeder, K. B., Pepper, G. V. & Nettle, D. Local norms of cheating and the cultural evolution of crime and punishment: a study of two urban neighborhoods. PeerJ 2, e450 (2014).
  7. Nettle, D. Does Hunger Contribute to Socioeconomic Gradients in Behavior? Front. Psychol. 8, 358 (2017).
  8. Krueger, P. M. & Chang, V. W. Being poor and coping with stress: health behaviors and the risk of death. Am. J. Public Health 98, 889–96 (2008).